POLITICIANS who ignore social media do so at their peril, warned Rishi Saha, British Prime Minister David Cameron's former digital head honcho.
Mr Saha, now regional director with global public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, said embracing social media was not "just about being on Twitter".
Having a presence on the micro blogging site was one of many weapons politicians should have in the communications bag.
He believes it would be remiss of governments and politicians to dabble in social media without first "just listening".
"People say 'what should you do if you're a government or a politician, what should you do in social media?'
"The first thing I always say is before you do anything, just listen … just listen. Which is actually to some politicians a bit of an alien impulse but it's the most valuable thing that you can do," Mr Saha said.
The concept of grassroots politics had not changed with the advent of social media, but there are more tools available to understand conversations on the internet.
At No.10, Mr Saha and his team used various tactics and tools to conduct digital media monitoring.
Conducting real-time analysis of conversations provided up-to-the-minute insights into what "people were actually talking about", he said.
Such analysis was crucial as it could shed a light on the vast chasm between what concerned voters and the issues politicians and journalists were engrossed in.
"Very often some issues that are incredibly important to people are just not talked about in the media because there's no news hook.
"For example one of the big issues on social (media) is around the price of energy. Only quite recently has this gotten onto the political radar and is being talked about.
"But that's one of those issues where there's an issue that insight and data and social media analysis tells you is being very heavily talked about (but) it's not making it into newsprint and that's an interesting phenomena," Mr Saha told The Australian after a digital conference in Sydney yesterday.
He said politicians and the media "tend to talk about a certain set of issues that interest them and it's often quite unscientific what those issues are but the public are talking about a whole set of other issues".
Digital has enhanced, not replaced, grassroots politics.
"Politics used to be organised. It used to have mass political party membership; you had a much stronger grassroots operation. Now, digital is another form of that.
"You can listen to people's conversations, you can understand what people are saying on public forums, and it informs what you can talk about as a government because ultimately one common refrain against government is that the things you're talking about aren't relevant, and there's a big distance between what I care about and what you're obsessed with.
"Using some of these analysis tools to understand what people are talking about is really valuable because it helps you understand the issues that people are focused on," he said.
Mr Saha, who worked at
Mr Coulson, who has been charged over phone-hacking and corruption, was the former editor of the now-defunct News of the World, published by News Corp, owner of The Australian.
Mr Saha described his working relationship with Mr Coulson as "very very professional".
"I always found, in my own dealings with him, in a working context he was always very very professional. He listened to advice (and) he made decisions quickly.
"Clearly a lot of the issues which are now being talked about referenced the period before we worked together when he was at the News of the World and there are clearly questions that have to be answered and that's going through the courts at the moment and he'll have to answer those questions".
Mr Saha said "there are people much better qualified than me" when asked how News Corp should navigate through the situation, but ultimately, he said, it came down to trust and reputation.
"Trust is one of those things that once you break it, it takes a long time to rebuild."
He said a British survey had shown that in 1987, 11 per cent of people didn't believe anything the government said. In 2010, that figure had shot up to 40 per cent.
"When you're dealing in that context and when trust has been lost there's not one gimmick that's going to change it … it's not like one quick thing … it's about working at it for many many years (and) trying to be as open and transparent as you can.
"You've got to work at it, you've got to be open and transparent and you've got to get that trust back."
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