It’s been a tough couple of weeks for the federal Liberal party. ALS took their respected and long-serving friend Mauril Bélanger. And, amid dealing with his loss, two cabinet ministers became the subjects of separate spending “scandals.”

  • Health Minister Jane Philpott was exposed for having used a car service to shuttle her between locations and charging the costs to taxpayers. Just a few days later she was exposed for having charged taxpayers for access to the Air Canada lounge while traveling. Whether the fees are appropriate or are the subject of debate. The handling of the issue by the Minister and her staff has been consistently criticized across the political spectrum.
  • Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna was exposed for her department having hired a professional photographer to capture McKenna in action during the COP21 conference in France last October. The costs weren’t insignificant, though apparently not unusual for senior Cabinet Ministers in any government.

The Liberal party prides itself on communications, transparency and public engagement. It has proven itself fairly adept at this particularly through social media. However, the approaches of the two Ministers reveal that some politicians have a natural aptitude and interest in being part of digital culture while others seem to do it out of necessity.

More specifically, how MPs use social media reveals a lot about their commitment to communications, transparency and public engagement.

Minister Philpott goes dark, leaves vacuum to be filled.

Minister Philpott is fairly active on social media. She posts regularly and gets a decent number of likes, shares and even comments on many of her posts. She occasionally disappears for two-to-three days, usually around weekends and holidays. Her posts hinge mostly her political work, with some Canadian pride mixed in.

In the face of controversy over her spending, Minister Philpott “went dark” and remained so for six days (August 17 through 23, inclusive). Her last post before going dark was about the death of Mr. Bélanger. Her first post back congratulated Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett for receiving an award. She completely avoided the subject of her spending on all social media platforms. By going dark and failing to acknowledge the issue online in a timely manner, the Minister delivered a vacuum and the public filled it.

Over the course of five days (August 23 is excluded since data is impacted by her appearance at the Canadian Medical Association’s 2016 General Council), the Minister was mentioned in 8,721 tweets by 4,864 unique Twitter accounts. In all, 5,829 tweets from 3,134 accounts were specifically about the spending scandal, almost all were decidedly critical of the Philpott’s spending and her handling of the issue. Mentions of Philpott on Facebook, Tumblr, forums and blogs nearly quadrupled during the crisis.

By comparison, the Minister was mentioned in only 1,654 tweets by 875 Twitter users during the same period the week prior.

By not posting about the spending scandal on Facebook and Twitter, the Minister invited the public to leave comments about the scandal wherever they chose. That means there are criticisms about the spending scandal on several unrelated posts on her Facebook page.

JanePhilpott-76insights-dark

Health Minister Jane Philpott’s social media posting activity by date (x-axis) and post resonance (y-axis) from July 1 through August 28, 2016, inclusive. Notice the gap in activity from August 17 through 23 as Minister Philpott went dark to avoid controversy. Analysis using 76insights.

JanePhilpott-crisis-SysomosMAP

Online mentions of Health Minister Jane Philpott spanning August 8 through 22, inclusive. Notice the spike in activity from August 17 through 22 while the Minister was absent. Analysis using Sysomos MAP.

Minister McKenna tears off the band aid, soldiers on.

Minister McKenna is very active on social media, posting text updates, photos and videos. She posts many times a day on a variety of activities, policies and interests with Twitter being her go-to social media platform. She’s posted videos to recruit new staff to participate in the 22 Pushups challenge. Her content attracts a healthy number of likes, shares and sometimes comments. Some posts attract significant engagement.

In the face of controversy over her spending, Minister McKenna didn’t skip a beat. While she didn’t dwell on the issue, she didn’t duck it. As with any other day on social media, she made it part of her publishing regimen. She posted a statement to Facebook and Twitter, written in a personal voice, explaining what was done and why, and declaring that she will consider other ways to achieve her communication goals without significant spending.

The Minister let critical (and otherwise respectful) comments to her Facebook post stand, a wise move for any politician particularly in the face of controversy. This is a public discourse and so long as people are productive rather than using profanity, racist or misogynist language or ad hominem attacks, comments should be allowed to stand.

McKenna faced a shorter, more concentrated period of activity surrounding the photography scandal — mostly criticism with a little bit of support mixed in. McKenna’s decisive and quick response served her very well. There was no waffling on the issue and her statement was clear. That cut the crisis time down by at least half.

Minister was mentioned in 5,765 tweets by 2,613 unique Twitter accounts during the one-day crisis. In all, 1,952 tweets from 1,330 accounts were specifically about the spending scandal. During short crisis, mentions of McKenna on Facebook, Tumblr, forums and blogs increased significantly. They returned to normal levels by August 25.

By comparison, it took seven days (August 14 through 20, inclusive) for the Minister to be mentioned in 3,454 tweets by 1,835 Twitter users the week prior.

CatherineMcKenna-76insights-light

Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna’s social media posting activity by date (x-axis) and post resonance (y-axis) from July 1 through August 28, 2016, inclusive. Notice there is no change of pace when controversy broke on August 23. Analysis using 76insights.

CatherineMcKenna-crisis-SysomosMAP

Online mentions of Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna spanning August 13 through 27, inclusive. Notice the one-day spike in activity on August 23, the day the Minister faced the issue head-in in a single post. Analysis using Sysomos MAP.

For more on how to handle crisis communication in the age of social media:

Featured image: don’t panic uploaded to Flickr by Leo Lambertini

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