PETALING JAYA--Politicians in Malaysia have little choice but to embrace social media to better communicate with the country's electorate, and they need to learn the ropes quickly to ensure they engage in a positive way, urge industry observers.
James Gomez, deputy associate dean and head of public relations for Monash University, said social media is another outreach tool that is increasingly used by politicians all over the world.
"Thus, not using it would be disadvantageous as there will be a vacuum on the social media front [for politicians]," Gomez said in an e-mail interview.
He said Malaysia's political platform has changed with the advent of social media and the emergence of the platform has forced politicians from all sides of the political aisle to adopt the use of social media.
Ong Kian Ming, political scientist and lecturer at the UCSI University's faculty of Economics and Policy Science, noted that although the political value and impact of social media remain unclear, all politicians are expected to have at least a Facebook and Twitter account, as well as a Web or blog site.
Ong told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail: "I think this is part of the recognition that politicians have to reach out to their constituents more directly by using technology, since there is a limit as to how much they can reach out via face-to-face interactions."
Jeremy Woolf, senior vice president for public relations firm Text 100, agreed, noting that political parties today have no choice but to embrace social media.
Social media can be a boon for politicians as it gives elected officials an opportunity to have conversations with their audience, and consequently, a chance to become closer to their constituents, Woolf said in an e-mail.
"This surely is the ultimate evolution of a democracy whereby voters play an active role with their representatives," he said. "Social media also provides politicians with a real-time view of what their constituents really think."
Tony Pua, Member of Parliament (MP) for the urban constituency of Petaling Jaya, concurred: "Social media is also a good way to listen to what's happening on the ground, and a great way to elicit feedback on the hot issues faced by people," he said in a phone interview.
Also the National Publicity Secretary for opposition party, Democratic Action Party (DAP), Pua said this platform does not always have to feature discussion about serious issues. For example, it can support tasks such as asking volunteers to drive a politician to an out-of-town campaign function, he added.
"Every little thing helps, be it eliciting help from people, asking for volunteers or the funneling of information," he noted. "Social media is a very useful tool as it's instantaneous, has wide reach and can be very targeted."
Age not factor in social use
Politicians active in social media comprise the younger generation, with notable names such as Pua, MP Khairy Jamuluddin and State Assembly Representative Hannah Yeoh and Nik Nazmi, all of whom are aged below 40.
Asked if the use of social media only appealed to younger politicians, Ong said not all young politicians were created equal, and as such, not all would use social media judiciously or effectively.
"The aforementioned names are all active on Twitter, Facebook and their respective blogs," he said. "They key here is that these young politicians play to their strengths and use social media to highlight their strengths. Many other young politicians either do not use social media regularly or are not using social media in a way which showcases their own strengths."
Woolf noted that age should not be a factor and anyone can be taught to use social media channels effectively. "Older politicians who've not used social networks should focus on gaining confidence in the short-form, personal nature of online communication and be ready to respond in real-time."
That said, he cautioned against using social media simply for the sake of doing so or risk failing.
"Politicians who blog or tweet need to allow readers to comment and also respond to those comments," he said. "Those who use social channels purely to broadcast their points of view without respecting the appropriate behaviors will likely become the subject of ridicule."
While the use of social media has its advantages, it can be a bane for politicians using them. For example, this week, a former assembly representative tweeted comments that touched on religion issues.
Within hours, an opposition online news portal reported the tweets and generated negative publicity for the former politician. He has since apologized.
Citing this incident, Ong said politicians who leverage social media should be careful and always think before tweeting. "Don't tweet when you're angry and when you're prone to react," he advised. "If you are uninformed on a particular topic, don't tweet about it and then pretend as if you know what you're talking about, especially if they're about sensitive topics such as religion."
No choice but to be
Despite the pitfalls of using social media, Woolf noted that politicians still have no choice but to embrace it.
"Social media is here to stay, and dealing with positive and negative comments is part of the environment," he said. "The trick is to take the skills they've already developed in the offline world and apply them appropriately to online discussions."
Pua added that it is important that a politician's social media character is consistent with his real-life identity as he is being watched by the public.
It is also important not to engage "cybertroopers", or hired help, to tweet on the politician's behalf because some of them will spread too much negativity and such efforts will backfire, he said.
"Keep your tweets personal, interesting, relevant and as civil as possible," he said. "Add to that a dash of humor and you will win more fans that way."
Edwin Yapp is a freelance IT writer based in Malaysia.