Politics

Stress, missteps: The life of a social media manager in B.C.

An error on a social media post from Premier David Eby’s X account on Holocaust Remembrance Day is a reminder that social media is a great tool for politicians, but not without its pitfalls.

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When David Eby’s recent Holocaust Remembrance Day post on X went wrong, mistakenly stating, “We stand with the Muslim community throughout Canada on this sorrowful day,” the error was immediately pounced on by Andrew Reeve, press secretary for B.C. United leader Kevin Falcon.

Reeve chastised the writer of the post on X with a scathing rebuke: “Glad to see this tweet was taken down, but who the hell drafted and approved this? Unacceptable.”

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Who the hell? Well, probably someone just like Reeve — a communications staffer.

The premier is most likely not writing his own tweets. The error was serious, but not fatal, in part because of the way it was handled.

Eby didn’t blame an intern, make excuses, or throw a team member under the bus.

“A mistake was made, but he handled it in the best way he possibly could. He got in front of the camera, owned it, apologized, spoke calmly and softly, and it was very sincere,” said Kareem Allam, a communications expert who has worked behind the scenes with some of B.C.’s highest-profile politicians.

Like it or not, social media has become the key component for government communications, from leadership campaigns to the highest office. Social media offers a direct avenue of communication between a politician or a government office, and the public. It’s a great tool, but not without pitfalls.

The old hard-copy news release is a complete anachronism, and the days when government announcements were made in controlled environments such as a campaign bus or a carefully constructed news conference are long gone, said Geoff Meggs, who was chief of staff to former Premier John Horgan.

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Managing a leader’s social media can lead to sleepless nights — think fires, floods, pandemics.

Leaders are expected to post on social media to show they are connected to issues in their local communities, including faith and cultural communities, and to respond to daily situations, such as emergencies and natural disasters.

They are consolers-in-chief, expected to respond to public pain, but they also are expected to have lighthearted moments, perhaps respond to the latest Canucks win, said Meggs.

More formally, social media is used as a straightforward communications tool, to say what it is the government is doing.

“If you are elected, you have an obligation to acknowledge grief, to celebrate with the public, and to commemorate the important days of particular faith communities,” said Meggs.

Typically, a communications director will be one of the closest staff members to a leader, spending a lot of time with them so they can capture that person’s personality and be nearby to have them vet social media posts that either they, or staff members, write.

“No tweet goes out without me or the candidates approval … ever. I don’t like being off-message,” said Allam.

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Planned social media posts that commemorate annual events, important cultural events and religious holidays are typically carefully crafted in advance, and not necessarily seen by the leader before they are posted — a possible reason the Jan. 27 Holocaust Remembrance Day post was mixed up with a planned Jan. 29 message commemorating the anniversary of the deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque in 2017.

Rapid responses to current events can easily go wrong, especially when the events are fraught. “From a comms perspective, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been a real challenge,” said Allam.

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow got into hot water after she condemned Hamas in a tweet on Oct. 7, followed it with a tweet acknowledging Palestinian pain, then deleted both, then posted a revision, and later prompted an uproar by calling a local Palestinian protest “unsanctioned.”

She apologized for the “messed up” messaging, blaming the limits of social media.

It was an example of how an attempt to correct a misstep can backfire. “That reversal didn’t feel authentic and, in the end, she upset everyone equally,” said Allam.

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Allam said a good communications director will be methodical, thoughtful, calm, and committed to the values and views they and their client represent.

Of course, there is one more thing: “You have to have nerves of steel,” said Allam.

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