Managing your MP’s Internet enthusiasm

Note from the W4MP Editor: Parliament is a serious place, and the Palace of Westminster and constituency offices are filled with hard-working, dedicated professionals engaged in the important business of running the country.  Yet even the most committed need time for rest and recuperation, space to kick back and unwind, and opportunities to take a sideways look at their workplace, employers and even their political masters.

Our man, Dean Trench, has written many wonderful pieces for W4MP over the years, guaranteed to turn your sobs of frustration into tears of laughter.  You can see more of his writing elsewhere.  To whet your appetite, here is his helpful guide to managing your MP’s new enthusiasm for the internet.

Everybody’s heard of the Minister who Tweets the happenings of his Statutory Instrument Committee to the massed ranks of the British electorate (in reality, seven lazy journalists hoping they’ll let slip a “gaffe”), or the famous MP whose blog is as incisive as it is witty. Such heroes soon develop a following of laptop wielding fans who, along with their staffers, all speak the incomprehensible language of Geek. But legends also abound of elected representatives who reckon that “a good kicking” is a solution to most software problems, think that “Twittering” is something most elderly ladies do, and who will cheerfully leave the business of the newfangled technology to their staff.

As terrible as the Luddism of the latter case sounds in comparison to the smooth Web 2.0 stylings of the former, in reality if your boss falls into either of these distinct categories, you’re laughing. The best boss either has no computer skills or could give your average fourteen year old Californian hacker a run for their money, but in any case both are cogniscent of their skills or lack thereof and it is around such self-awareness that happy offices operate.

Unfortunately, most Members of Parliament neither fall neatly into one of these groups nor boast “self-awareness” as a personality trait. More than likely your boss will manifest an unbridled and almost child-like enthusiasm for the internet and all its mysteries, whilst being blissfully unaware of how the damn thing works.

Not that this will stop them, oh no. So if you are one of the poor unfortunates whose MP has recently received instructions from their party HQ to “start blogging because, like, it’s WELL cool mmmkay?” here’s a guide for surviving the inevitable flame wars that will arise in the wake of your boss’ (hopefully) short-lived dalliance with all things online.

Managing your MP on Microsoft Office

In ye oldyen dayes when mincing around on Facebook when you should be writing a policy letter was a hitherto undiscovered luxury (or “pre-2001” as they are known on the Parliamentary Estate) not all offices were hooked up to the Parliamentary Intranet. In fact, if you were unlucky enough to be stationed in one of those offices in the main Palace – cramped, over-heated, and smelling vaguely of mothballs – it is likely that you would have been able to access the internet only via the sort of dial-up that sounds like it’s trying to connect to an exchange server in Hades, judging from all the grunting and howling Parliamentary computers were wont to make if you attempted it.  And if you were in the constituency office, forget it; your only hope for instant communication was an obliging carrier pigeon or smoke signals.

Things have much improved since then, and now every office on the Estate and the constituency office are wired up to the latest broadband facilities the Parliamentary Internet Communications and Technology (PICT) can muster for us. And this, more often than not, is where the problems start.

The establishment of their parliament.uk email account will necessarily bring your boss in contact with Microsoft Outlook, which manages emails, his or her diary (which most staff in an MP’s office will have access to), and contacts.

Here are some tips for staying sane:

  • Monitor their emails: You boss’ main email is usually the one advertised on their website (of which more, later) and will soon be engulfed in a veritable slurry of constituents’ enquiries, badly spelled requests to sign Early Day Motions by blonde lobbyists, spam, and the voluminous stuff from the chap who reckons that Mossad are poisoning his cress plants. ALWAYS check that the boss is not dashing off responses to constituents without informing you of the action points arising. Irate constituents howling to the local paper that your boss failed to deliver will be blamed on you, even if you had no knowledge of his promises to help three months earlier. Delete the spam, forward on anything that you will need to deal with yourself, and archive everything else by date, just in case. This saves space on the (still tiny) Parliamentary mailbox and stops the email address from being locked down.
  • Keep an eye on the diary: After they become a Member of Parliament, new MPs are taken off to a secret underground chamber to receive a lobotomy of their common sense. This means that formerly organised and reasonably competent individuals will suddenly forget the most rudimentary basics needed for getting through life with a reasonable reputation for proficiency. Although the consequences of this are often hilarious, they should be avoided. For this reason ALWAYS be aware that when your boss says “I’ve moved it in the diary” doesn’t mean that he’s actually informed the Commons authorities or the attendees of the revised time. He means “I’ve moved it in Microsoft Outlook. I assume that you’ll know this through osmosis, or perhaps I just assumed you are aware of every single appointment in the calendar from now until six months hence off by heart, and you’ll inform all the participants of the changes forthwith.”

Supervising your MP’s use of the SmartPhone

By and large, you should discourage your MP from owning any kind of device that means that he or she can forward you emails or bother you about work stuff at last orders at 11.15pm, Saturday night. The reasons behind this are twofold:

  1. Our brave trade union representatives (Unite) do not slave, day in day out, getting us bag-carriers a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work for you to scupper the brethren by offering up your weekend as if you were a pit pony circa 1905;
  2. You are more than likely to respond to any email sent by your employer with the words “sure bossman, will do!” whilst en route to the kebab house, post a long session in your local boozer. Naturally, you will have forgotten all about your online conversation by the next morning, and will get yourself in a lot of trouble a few weeks later when your MP asks how you are getting on with his awesome idea which would have had the Israel-Palestine conflict solved by lunchtime, last Monday. IF you had been listening.

Your MP’s website

This is something that all MPs should really have, and most do. It doesn’t need to be too flashy: just a basic site. A bog-standard website should have:

  • Contact details: Most constituents just want to know how to get hold of the MP so they can moan at them, rather than wade through ten pages of text about how wonderful your MP is;
  • Press releases: Put them online. Your MP will enjoy reading on his SmartPhone how wonderful he is during the boring bits in the Chamber;
  • Pictures: Have lots of big colourful pictures of your MP engaging with the local community and being saluted by the local groups for being wonderful.

And if you’re lucky, engagement with the online world will stop there.

 

Facebook

If you’re not lucky, the chances are that the first port of call for your boss in their quest to lose their Web 2.0 virginity will be Facebook.

The rot really began to set in with the increased popularity of Facebook a couple of years ago as detailed by W4MP alt.guide advisors. See Claire Romney’s sage counsel www.w4mp.org/html/library/altguide/tenthingsnever_part2.asp if you don’t believe us.

It only took a couple of enterprising PPCs and a few high-profile additions to the parliament network before the bars were a-buzz with this brilliant innovation which, according to over-excitable web advisors at various party HQs, would definitely re-engage the citizenry with the political process. It’s like the printing press, they breathlessly informed wide-eyed elected representatives, but it’s free! And has pictures!

If your MP cannot be dissuaded from getting a profile by a folder of press cuttings from the Private Eye bearing the legend “WHEN FACEBOOK GOES WRONG: PART THE NINETEENTH” on the front, or bloodcurdling tales of media humiliation at the hands of ill-judged late-night wall posts after a couple of beers in Strangers’, then prepare to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in.

The most important thing to remember is to always have security settings enabled. Have one list for actual genuine friends of the MP, whose members can see your boss’ wall, view his photos and the like. Have another for those who, you suspect, are media graduates hell bent on making their name in the noble industry that comprises the Fourth Estate by writing an article which involves a picture of your boss rather the worse for wear in his hilarious “Hide My Sausage” t-shirt underneath the headline: SHAME!

There will always be one or two that fall between the cracks though, so be vigilant: un-tag dodgy pictures, edit rambling wall posts threatening to disembowel neighbouring MPs, and – unless your boss is under twenty-five – never, ever, under any circumstances allow them to use “LOL”, “ROFLMAO” or similar. If at all possible, try and persuade your MP that as they’re using Facebook as a communication tool, it should fall to you to administer it. However if this fails, well. Our prayers are with you.

Incidentally, there is a real story somewhere of a councillor who made the career-knackering decision of adding the “what sex toy are you?” application (nipple tassels, if I remember it correctly). This sort of thing is likely to be remembered by the opposition when it comes to writing leaflets at election time.

Don’t have nightmares.

Blogging

Until a couple of years ago, most bag-carriers could rest easy in their beds safe in the knowledge that most Parliamentarians knew “blogging” only as something that fast-food companies did in the Amazon to clear the way for livestock grazing. Jolly bad thing too!

Then a couple of MPs (Yeah. We all know who you are.) starting hitting the headlines with stuff they’d written on their blogs, and suddenly you find all hell is breaking loose on your work station when you return from lunch to find your boss already in possession of www.working-hard-for-YOU.blogspot.com, comparing backdrop themes and champing at the bit to write his first post.
The political blogosphere, for those blissfully unaware of its existence, is a scary place so again, urge caution. Having a free and honest exchange with the electorate sounds awfully nice when those pointy-headed policy wonks are advocating radical new methods of communication in a seminar, tucked away in an ivory tower somewhere in north London. The practical realisation of online engagement, however, has more in common with all-in wrestling than it does with Socratic dialectic.

But your MP will not heed these warnings and will go skipping off out into no-man’s land. They will return, however, wiser, older, and sadder, having learnt the following:

  • The importance of netiquette (online etiquette). Debrett’s got nothing close to the level of minutiae that an online novice has to learn – from the terminology, the process, to the fact that certain bloggers are liable to blow up and start a flame war if your boss says as much as “hiya, how goes?” to them;
  • That astroturfing is frowned upon. Astroturfing, or: the creation of artificial grass roots” (geddit?!), is always highly tempting and there is at least one MP who has been caught at cracking up a blogpost about how goddamn great they are, and then logging in under several different names to enthusiastically agree in the comments. Not classy;
  • Not to get involved in blog wars: there are usually at least three of these rumbling on at any one time as the biggest cheeses in the online community fight it out for blogospheric dominance. Why not get involved? Well, look at it this way: assuming the Cold War had got very hot all of a sudden, how would you like to be placed in the exact point where the missiles of the Yanks and the USSR collide?
  • That trolling is not okay just because everyone’s at it. Trolling is similar to astroturfing, but usually involves the comments box of a political opponent, anonymity, and a good deal of ripe language. It’s also, apparently, acceptable to howl “TROLL!” at anyone who mildly contends your point of view;
  • Beware journalists. In ye oldyen tymes, newshounds used to actually go looking for stories. These days they just sit on their arses waiting for an MP to say something along the lines of “there may be a recession on but at least the weather’s nice”, before duly springing into suitably outraged action (thus leaving scope for a why-o-why-don’t-our-politicians-speak-their-minds piece the following week);
  • Always have comment moderation turned on, otherwise your comments box will be chock-full of mindless abuse, weirdoes living out their anal rape fantasies, borderline libel, outright libel, and racists before you can say “the principles of Voltaire.”

And because, at heart, most MPs are sensitive souls, do remind them not to take anything too personally. In fact, the phrase “you sack of turd – I hope you and your stinking party is obliterated come 2010!!!!!111!!” (preferably all in capitals) is how I say, “top of the morning, friends! And what a glorious one it is, eh? Pip pip!” to my closest online acquaintances, in the open-asylum that is online political discourse.

Twitter

Unless you are frighteningly technologically savvy, if you Twitter and are a Member of Parliament over the age of 30 you are just going to look like a middle-aged uncle dancing with your thumbs in the air at your nephew’s wedding.

Perhaps one of the most distressing things about Twitter is that our elected representatives and PPCs appear to lead such dull lives. Here are some not untypical examples of your average Tweet from such individuals:

  • “Just come out of meeting with Chief Exec of OFWAT. V. interesting.”
  • “To the Chamber to represent my constituents’ views: always working hard for YOU!”
  • “What do people think about the Barnett Formula? I’d be interested to hear your views.”

Bag-carriers have first hand knowledge that no MP is this boring; they’re just not at liberty to really let rip, for the reasons explained above.

But this being the case, be under no illusion: the only reason people follow your boss on Twitter is because they are waiting for them to get drunk and post something fruity about a well-known Cabinet Minister or Shadow spokesman. If he or she thinks that the fact they’ve got 2,000 followers (whose IP addresses, if they were checked, would probably all hail from the press gallery) is down to them all being interested in their views on the unadopted drains proposals in the Pitt Review, you should advise them to think again.

Come to think of it, instead of embracing the internet revolution, why not advise your boss to take all their clothes off, get drunk, and sit in the Press Bar regaling them all with stories that would make even Russell Brand blush? It would be much easier.

… and finally, sending a shout out to Parliamentary Information Communication Technology!

There are some things that individuals should not ever be asked to undertake in the call of duty. Brave helpdesk staff at PICT – we salute you!

DEAN TRENCH


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A Working for an MP Guide
Managing your MP’s Internet Enthusiasm
First Published 7 May 2010 w4mp
Last Updated 2 April 2016 w4mp
Last Reviewed 1 January 2014 w4mp
Unamended version copied from old Guide