Howlin to spin doctors: ‘social media may not be suited to public service’

26 Apr 2012

Ireland's Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin, TD

Ireland’s Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin, TD, appears uneasy at the prospect of social media being used by the public service and said today communicating your message through social media “is not especially well suited to the public services environment.”

In a speech given to the Public Relations Institute’s Annual Conference and published in full on, Howlin seemed to infer that social media was a double-edged sword for spin doctors endeavouring to “manage the message.”

It is clear that the speed of platforms like Twitter and how easily politicians can fall afoul of social media seems to have the spin doctors generally in a tizzy – most want to drum up business by appearing to be up with the trends, while others may see it as another burden associated with keeping on top of the 24/7 news machine.

Addressing the institute, Howlin said he was “intrigued” by the PR industry’s title for their annual shindig: ‘Reputation Management in the Age of Digital.’

He said: “For many years we have been dealing with the issued posed by the 24/7 news environment. Social media has now transformed further that transformation. Comment, almost by definition, is immediate and reactive. The need for the reflective and the considered is even more important against that backdrop.

“In a famous speech towards the end of his tenure as prime minister, Tony Blair addressed the issue of how the 24/7 news cycle had changed attitudes towards politics and political reporting. We have seen in famous incidents here how social media impacted upon our presidential race. We are yet to consider, though, is how social media is changing our perception of politics at a deeper level.

“I wonder, too, whether communicating your message through social media is not especially well suited to the public service environment.

“For example, social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter require instant reaction and constant news feed if they are to be effective. When we use these new media, we do so to communicate our old message – the traditional public service approach of facts being researched and distilled, a brief being prepared and submitted through the hierarchical structure. I am not convinced that we are wrong to do so, either,” Howlin said.

Controlling the message

“True public service and the public service retains a responsibility to be accurate and fair in all its dealings with the public. But no more than any other business seeking to get its message out to the public, this is a challenge we’ll have to grapple with over the coming months and years, primarily how to reconcile those public service responsibilities with the instant demands of the digital age and the risk of getting left behind by failure to engage.

“And this is the nub of the issue – reputations can be damaged in an instant by the release of a thoughtless comment or an inaccurate fact, such is the speed of an issue ‘going viral’. I await with interest the results of your deliberations as to how best to marry the competing challenges of ‘speed of response’ and the retention of some semblance of control over the message.”

Howlin told the conference that the public sector reform agenda is gaining pace and by 2015 the Government aims to achieve a planned reduction of 37,500 staff, or 12pc of civil servants.

He said effective use of e-government and ICT in the public service will be critical and said the central government portal now facilitates access to 300 public services online.

He said a culture change of communication is a critical objective but this involves empowering public servants to assume ownership of the change process.

Lobbying in Ireland has a brand problem

The burning issue of lobbying in Ireland was hit upon and the need for regulation in the areas. He said – and it’s no surprise considering recent tribunals, for example – that lobbying in Ireland has a brand problem.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to point out here that lobbying, per se, has a reputational or brand problem. I’m sure this will not come as news to a profession that frequently breaks this kind of bad news, when necessary, to its clients. The professions are particularly susceptible to the single bad apple syndrome.”

He said that the legal, accounting and political professions have all suffered reputational damage in recent years, as have the public relations and lobbying professions.

“Despite the benefits that lobbying can bring to the political process, the negative connotations associated with lobbying in ‘private’ and the consequent lack of public trust in politics cannot be denied. Ensuring transparency and accountability in decision making through the introduction of effective standards, rules and procedures is necessary to restore this public trust.

“Public expectations around accountability, transparency and honesty in politics have not always been met as is evidenced by the findings of the Mahon Tribunal Report. That report made a number of recommendations regarding lobbying again highlighting this issue.

“The importance of introducing regulations for lobbying activity is supported by the Organisation for Co-operation and Development (OECD) who have stated that ‘… a sound framework for transparency in lobbying is crucial to safeguard the public interest, promote a level playing field for business and avoid capture by vocal interest groups …’

“My department has reviewed international approaches to the regulation of lobbyists to help inform the design of national proposals to meet the Government’s commitments,” Howlin said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years