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Twitter exclusives: same as before, just a different medium

Liam Herbert, managing director at JBP for PR & Parliamentary Affairs, comments on the news that Downing Street plans to provide ‘Twitter exclusives’ to selected journalists.

You may have missed the story in the newspapers at the weekend about the Government and its use of Twitter. If you did, then maybe that was the point.

There can be few parts of life in the UK that has more fully embraced the power of the 140 characters that is Twitter than politicians. Our politicians are Twitter addicts – well a good number of them at least. According to Tweetminster - a twitter-based Westminster news service of the 650 sitting MPs - you can find 418 of them on Twitter.

So, it is hardly surprising to learn that Downing Street has now got in on the act. Craig Oliver – the Prime Minister’s communications director - has been accused of using Twitter to “tip off” selected journalists with exclusives to specific stories and corralling the power of government MPs to apparently quash bad news.

This is not the first time that I have commented on the way Craig Oliver works – he was famously caught on camera last year berating BBC reporter Norman Smith in true “The Thick of It” style, which, as I said at the time, was just how communications had always worked, but we did not often get to see it played out so publicly.

Now, once again, some commentators and journalists are complaining that use of these Twitter tactics by Downing Street is in some way underhand. News is breaking when it should be announced in parliament.

It strikes me that those complaining are completely missing the point.

Firstly, lobby briefing of journalists is nothing new, it has been happening ever since the lobby system was established in 1884. Governments of every hue have sought to influence reporting on parliament by talking to journalists in the lobby. Mrs Thatcher’s redoubtable communications chief Bernard Ingham ran the lobby with a “firm hand”. Alistair Campbell is famous for the control he brought to government communications when Labour was in power. He also made a profound change to the system by publishing a transcript of lobby briefings on the Downing Street website.

Craig Oliver is employing the latest communications tools available and more importantly, he is taking the story to where it is best heard.

Which brings me to my second point: Twitter is happening and is most certainly happening in politics. News, views and gossip from the Westminster Village are abound on Twitter. Political parties, MPs, advisors and campaigners have all taken to the medium in a massive way – the conversation is already happening. All that the government is doing is ensuring it is part of the story.

“We’re getting to where the people are these days” was how Anthony Simon, head of digital communications at the prime minister’s office described it. And he is right.

In an age when news breaks first on Twitter why would we not expect our politicians to communicate in the same way? You can see the appeal. It's fast, it's direct, it's open to anyone to participate in and it’s another way to reach people who feel increasingly alienated from traditional politics.

The concept of offering a “Twitter exclusive” to a journalist is as it has always been in the world of communications: give your story to the best person to tell it to as many people as possible. Political exclusives are certainly not new, the change is the medium through which we now hear about them.

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