Barack Obama’s election victory in 2012 was celebrated most vividly by a tweet with a photo of him embracing his wife Michelle with three simple words ‘Four more years’. It received more retweets than any previous post across Twitter, sealing its place as a political and social media icon of its time.
After Obama’s ‘four more years’ were up, Donald Trump’s first tweet after his own election victory was very different in style and message. As we’ve come to learn from his social media habits, he’s far from predictable but he’s never failed to grab attention.
Theresa May’s 2017 election campaign and outcome won’t be remembered for anything she or her team delivered on social media. As far as digital was concerned, she ran her campaign in a similar way to how she communicated as Prime Minister and before that as Home Secretary – by pretending social media didn’t really exist.
David Cameron’s communications operation rode the wave of the social media upturn triggered largely by the boom in smartphones during his time in office. Upon becoming Prime Minister in July 2016, it was clear that team May had other ideas. There was no tweeting of her first ministerial appointments, which had been introduced under her predecessor. As far as her media operation was concerned, it was back to traditional press releases to make announcements. Just why her closest aids Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill were so sceptical of social media has never been entirely clear. It might be to do with a perceived lack of control over messaging inherent with the likes of Twitter or an attempt to be more strategic, seeing her predecessor’s efforts as being frivolous and perhaps a little too vain.
This social media vacuum was ruthlessly exploited by Labour during last year’s General Election campaign. It allowed their messages to gain traction, especially with those who avoided or were not reached by regular news media. May’s aversion to digital meant they had few tools in the armoury to counter the agenda which was seized enthusiastically by team Corbyn. A quick comparison between both leader’s social media accounts paints a stark picture. Corbyn’s official Twitter and Facebook pages posted 925 messages over the election campaign, receiving 2.8 million shares. In contrast, May’s pages posted 159 times, almost six times less, and her messages were shared a mere 130,000 times.
Fast forward 12 months and Theresa May’s approach couldn’t be more different. Her rates of publishing across Twitter and Facebook have grown massively.
The graph below shows from the volume of tweets and levels of engagement highlight just how far things have changed:
Interesting, professional and compelling video content is now at the centre of the engagement strategy. It’s released in a timely and effective manner – a far cry from May’s time as Home Secretary where her advisors could take days to sign off a single re-tweet.
As Prime Minster, it’s produced some good results. On 14 April, following British armed forces’ involvement in Syrian air strikes in the wake of the apparent use of chemical weapons, Facebook video was the primary medium used to reach the public. A film of the Prime Minister’s statement was posted in the early hours and viewed by thousands as they woke up. According to Facebook, the video of her statement has now been viewed 3.2 million times – a highly impressive return from communicating in this way.
There are now monthly video updates of May’s activities around the country and the world. The technical production resources required for this slick operation has shown how Number 10 is once again placing digital at the heart of its communications strategy, aiming directly at users’ social media feeds.
The ‘regular’ news media are understandably obsessed with the daily Brexit battles, meaning there’s limited opportunity for Number 10 to communicate the Prime Minister’s wider priorities or agenda. Engaging directly via social media channels has given the Prime Minister the platform she needs to communicate directly with the electorate and help her overcome the considerable challenges she faces ahead.