Lobbying By Tweet? Beware The Pitfalls

Amazon has recently taken a more public and aggressive approach to political engagement. But using Twitter to engage in a more direct way is not without its pitfalls.

Decisions about whether and how to use Twitter in any public affairs campaign is now a normal part of strategy development. Some organisations are more geared up to use social media channels than others. But it’s not just about Twitter. Some organisations prefer to steer away from the style of Twitter. LinkedIn, in particular, can be a very good way of getting information in front of key stakeholders.

But Amazon has recently gone a stage further. Instead of using Twitter as a part of a campaign, to engage in banter or as a way of establishing a new contact, they have engaged in forceful exchanges direct with US policy makers.

Such a public way of ‘fighting back’ on a key issue is presumably meant to exert pressure on the policy maker and get others to do likewise. Maybe they got fed up with biting their tongues when attacked in public by politicians. They obviously felt it was time to fightback. This public way of lobbying is very different from the approaches that are usually adopted.

But there are substantial potential risks, many of which seem to have already played out.

No support: instead of generating support for your position, the opposite happens.

Further winds them up: a public rebuke never goes down well with any politician and usually ends up with them doubling down.

Creates news: the tweet itself generates additional news coverage. This might have been part of the thought process so that the issues could be explored in more detail. Unfortunately, what coverage there has been has looked at Amazon’s behaviour both in terms of tweets and how much it pays in tax (part of the political complaints in the first place).

Danger of getting it wrong: if you are going to take a very forthright position then you have to be 100% sure of it. In the case of Amazon, their initial forceful denial that drivers have to use plastic bottles to pee in had to be reversed. That undermines all the other efforts being made.

Be on constant patrol: if you choose to respond forcibly to one then there is an onus to deal with others in the same way. Otherwise it will seem that you are targeting some but letting others off the hook. The has clear resource implications.

While it might be considered an issue for public affairs, the use of this sort of tactic absolutely needs to be a joined-up approach between all the various internal teams – public affairs (of course), social media, media, corporate affairs and possible others as well. It is certainly the type of approach that needs senior level sign-off.

The approach could have dictated from the very highest level of the company but even if that is the case, the risks need to be communicated to them. They can ignore the risks, that is their prerogative, but it does not lessen them.

Social media is an important piece of the public affairs jigsaw but should not be used as a blunt instrument. Amazon have found that out to their cost.

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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