I had coffee with an Hill staffer last week. We had a great conversation about the role of digital in politics and democratic engagement. And, we talked about the challenge of understanding and acting within digital culture rather than just amassing and neglecting a vast amount of online real estate.
Perhaps the most engaging part of our discussion was about the why and how of social media in politics and public affairs. There is so much to understand about the capabilities and limitations of each technology platform in helping an MP create and strengthen his or her relationship with constituents and stakeholder groups. We always came back to the human aspect — the ghost in the machine.
Elements of what we discussed are illustrated in this week’s digital makeover of MP Sean Casey.
Before I even discuss the composition of Sean Casey’s digital ecosystem, I need to point out something that I’ve never seen before. If you do a Google search on sean casey or sean casey mp, the first two results point web users to the encrypted, or SSL, version of his website (https://seancasey.liberal.ca).
This may seem innocuous except for the fact that it exposes a big problem with his site. I’m fairly certain the version of website Mr. Casey would like you to see is the version in the picture on the left immediately below this paragraph. Instead, visitors are being sent to the “broken” version of his site (pictured on the right). I’ve checked the SSL version of other Liberal MP websites using the same template and they seem to work fine. So, it’s not a template issue.
Otherwise, Mr. Casey’s website is clean and familiar, boasting the look, feel and navigation of all other Liberal MP websites. There are benefits and challenges to that approach. Finding things becomes familiar for visitors who check in on several Liberal MP sites. On the other hand, the template lacks a search functionality and generally excludes constituency and portfolio information.
One other problem with his site… The photo gallery functionality only shows tiny thumbnails rather than full images. This makes the navigation interface almost too small to use when the gallery is open.
Mr. Casey provides a link to his Facebook Fan Page in a side block throughout his site. Links to his Twitter, Flickr and YouTube properties are otherwise tucked away on his Contact page. Mr. Casey has a second YouTube channel which is the more prominent result on a YouTube search of a channel bearing his name. [Note: the digital ecosystem drawing that appears earlier in this post indicates Mr. Casey's website links to the "second" of his YouTube accounts. It should indicate SeanCaseyPEI, not SeanCaseyMP.]
His Facebook and Twitter accounts link back to his website; Flickr and neither of his YouTube channels do not.
Branding is inconsistently applied throughout his digital ecosystem. It’s not entirely a bad thing to use platform-appropriate photos so long as the photo clearly identifies the politician. Mr. Casey’s Facebook profile photo is a nice shot of his family (in which each face is small), and his Twitter photo shows him seated at a desk (again, a small version of his face). His Flickr and YouTube accounts only identify Mr. Casey by his account name which thankfully includes MP (since Sean Casey is a surprisingly common name). Neither account features a profile photo or custom “cover photo.”
Three opportunities for improvement:
- Fix your website so it appears properly over the SSL connection and so the menu “artifacting” problem is fixed.
- Make sure each of your digital outposts features a recognizable photo of you and a custom cover image.
- Provide a clear indication you are the Justice Critic. Among other things it might suggest a cabinet position for you if the Liberals become government in the next election.
Content-wise, Mr. Casey’s strength is his blog. The absence of character limits allows him to more thoroughly explain the issues and why they matter, particularly to him. The posts are well written and not too long.
I’m otherwise not a fan of the approach Mr. Casey has adopted for most of his content production. Most of his updates are politically charged and are presented with a negative, often sarcastic, tone. It’s refreshing to see the rare posts in which he shares something more person since is breaks the political and critical patterns at the same time.
On the other hand, perhaps Mr. Casey knows his audience expects this approach since his most popular tweet over the last six months, in which he called out Minister Aglukkaq for heckling Carolyn Bennett, overshadowed an uplifting tweet which featured a photo (he clearly took with his smartphone) of choir of young people celebrating the Chinese New Year. Which is theatre and which is real is open to interpretation.
Mr. Casey’s Flickr photostream and PEI YouTube channel are largely inactive. Both feature mostly official content or content which shows Mr. Casey in action as an MP. A series of videos was produced during the last election featuring Mr. Casey elaborating on issues such as women’s rights, healthcare and campaigning. The campaigning video was by far the most engaging since Mr. Casey didn’t seem to be working from talking points or a script.
Scripts are not his strength. They aren’t really the strength of many MPs. One video on Mr. Casey’s MP channel features him delivering a (passionless) read of a (poorly hidden) script on the important issue of bullying. His gaze is is predominantly at two pieces of paper on his desk, one on his left, then the other on his right, rather than at the camera. This video illustrates every reason why MPs should speak from their hearts.
Three opportunities for improvement:
- Soften up on the criticism and sarcasm. Find positive ways to deliver the same message and balance out the political commentary with non-political updates which offer relatability onramps.
- Decouple your Twitter and Facebook accounts. Facebook is not Twitter. Exploit the strengths and opportunities of each channel on which you choose to have a profile.
- Lose the scripts. If the issue is important enough for you, demonstrate that importance by being dynamic and showing some degree of passion in your delivery.
Participation & Community
The biggest weakness is Mr. Casey’s digital ecosystem is the lack of community. Despite being at it since 2011, Mr. Casey hasn’t been able to engage his followers or capture enough interest to draw out participation beyond a few retweets or Facebook likes. This is even true of his blog posts.
I suspect this is due to a few reasons. I noted Mr. Casey’s Twitter tone in the Content section of this post. Perhaps it is too edgy to attract newcomers to the conversation. Or, perhaps his content is too final and doesn’t leave openings for or encourage people to share their own views. That’s too bad since bullying is a hot topic these days — one many people are eager to discuss. It’s practically a red carpet for community-building.
In the case of Facebook, I suspect the reason is the cross-posted Twitter content is not suited to the platform. On days where Mr. Casey issues five or more tweets, his Fan Page looks and feels noisy. The volume and tone of the content means that over the last month, Mr. Casey has eeked out 0.9 likes and 0.1 comments for each of his posts.
I noted Mr. Casey is more comfortable on Twitter. In the last six months he’s issued 383 tweets — a mix of 52% regular tweets (communication), 31% retweets (amplification) and 17% @replies (conversation or participation). While some of his replies are to people from the public, a healthy amount is to caucus-mates and media. By the way, 17% is a respectable reply rate.
During the same six month period, 834 Twitter users issued 1,690 tweets which included a mention of Mr. Casey’s Twitter handle.
Three opportunities for improvement:
- Soften your tone. Make people feel more welcome to discuss issues with and around you.
- Create openings for people to contribute. Ask questions. Share inspiring content. Create some of your engaging content.
- Decouple your Twitter and Facebook accounts. Use Facebook to initiate conversations.
Interruption (the bonus category)
As odd as it may sound, not many MPs post photos they’ve taken, themselves, with their own smartphone. Mr. Casey posted a few from the Liberal Party’s convention in Montreal and one from the House of Commons, recently. It’s a welcome break to his Twitter rhythm.