Using social media to engage with young, non-voters

About the author

Ann is a co-founder of PR Academy. Her special areas of interest are internal communication, change management and project communication. MSc, Dip CAM, MCIPR

In the second of our mini series of blogs on election communication, Sandeep Shah, Senior Communication and Engagement Officer with the Office of the Children’s Commissioner shares what he found through his research for the CIPR PR Diploma.  Sandeep explained….

“Pollsters predict this year’s General Election will be the closest in decades with parties fighting for every vote. But what about the millions of young citizens who cannot vote? The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states children have a right to a say in decisions that affect them. How can parties communicate with them?

An estimated 98% of 9-16 year olds are online whilst half of 11-16 year olds use Twitter.[i] Social media seems an ideal medium for parties to have a dialogue with them.

As part of my CIPR Diploma in PR with PR Academy I looked at whether the three main parties in Parliament have used Twitter to engage with those too young to vote in a two-way symmetrical manner. I asked the youth wings of the parties how they used Twitter, analysed their tweets and sent a survey to elected members of the UK Youth Parliament (UKYP) who are too young to vote in a General Election.

My findings showed the main aim of the youth wings of parties using Twitter appears to be generating offline participation in activities rather than two-way communication. However the survey showed more than half of young representatives had not acted offline after seeing something on party Twitter accounts. Whilst these young people wanted information from party tweets foremost they also wanted to ask questions and be asked their opinion. Not engaging online also defeats the youth wings primary aim. One study showed the more people took part in online politics the more they did offline.[ii]

It was clear all three parties targeted their key active public: members. Unusually this public is part of their movement but if they want to reach other young people then engagement in two-way communication is needed. Considering 59.3% of young representatives had used Twitter to find out what a party is doing it seems a missed opportunity. They may be taking the information they desire and then leaving due to a lack of engagement. Only three young people asked parties a question via Twitter.

The environment scanning social media offers communications professionals is also not fully utilised without two-way communication. Just broadcasting information does not allow parties to learn more about what other publics think or want. Dialogue is needed to change behaviour.

Compare this to the US. In 2008 interdependence with their publics encouraged the Obama campaign to listen and adapt online. As Mitch Stewart, a state level campaign director said “you have to be willing to change and to let your volunteers have a voice.”[iii] The campaign was able to mobilise online supporters and translate this into offline action with staff creating an online dialogue with publics. However the UK party youth wings predominantly send out one way broadcast style messages to members.

It is possible the parties do not view two-way communication as their goal for Twitter. Parties responding to the questionnaire ranked giving young people information as the most frequent thing their accounts do. Young Labour also said Twitter offered ‘a route to have a dialogue’ and their main aim was ‘engaging young people’. Yet only two tweets out of 60 analysed from all three youth wing accounts were two-way symmetrical communications.

Most organisations, regardless of sector, have not made two-way communication a reality on social media. The same is true of the youth wings of parties. This does not mean they are failing to meet any of the wishes of young people. The survey showed young people desired information foremost. Unlike other organisations parties might promulgate their views to those already sharing them rather than engaging in debates.

I found the youth wings are nurturing relationships with members by targeting them and highlighting opportunities to join offline activities. However by not engaging in a dialogue they are not building new relationships.

More than 60% of my survey respondents were aged 16-17. Following the Scottish independence referendum if there are moves to lower the voting age more widely parties are missing the chance to engage with this important public. By not engaging in a dialogue with these heavy users of social media on Twitter a powerful resource is being under utilised.”

[i]           Haddon L, Livingstone S and the EU Kids Online network (2012). EU Kids Online: National perspectives. Available from: [Accessed: 30 July 2014] and Lilley C, Ball R and Vernon H. (2012). The experiences of 11-16 year olds on social networking sites. Available from: [Accessed: 30 July 2014].

[ii]          Vesnic-Alujevic, L. (2012). Political participation and web 2.0 in Europe: A case study of Facebook. Public Relations Review, 38 (3) 466– 470.

[iii]         Levenshus A. (2010). Online Relationship Management in a Presidential Campaign: A Case Study of the Obama Campaign’s Management of Its Internet-Integrated Grassroots Effort, Journal of Public Relations Research, 22(3):313–335.