Social democracy - departments and their profiles

26 Aug 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 5 Sep 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

Twitter is the social channel of choice in politics. Scope undertakes a serious analysis of how the new NI Executive departments distribute information to the adoring masses.

Social media is now considered a very important aspect of modern politics.

Certainly the past week has shown, yet again, that elected representatives can get themselves into serious diffs with mistakes made online.

The political mandate had barely got started before summer recess, which is normally a political low season aside from any ructions around parades – however this year has been different, with the marching season relatively peaceful, but Brexit, Brexit letters and now Nama keeping things spicy.

Twitter is the main forum for political messaging so Scope has decided to run the rule over Stormont’s new departments and ministers.

Perhaps strangely, all the departments set up new Twitter profiles in January – including those which have substantially the same remit as their equivalents in the last mandate, such as education – with two exceptions: health and the Executive Office.

Comms strategists would consider existing followers to be an asset and would be reluctant to sacrifice them completely on the altar of rebranding.

It might be easy to dismiss this as the decision of Faceless Civil Servants, collective noun Committee, but the fact that health has kept its account, dating from May 2011, suggests this is not the case.

The Executive Office is a more interesting case – the old OFMdFM account has indeed been ditched and not really replaced. Instead, the EO has taken control of the @NIExecutive Twitter account, which has been in place since August 2010.

So, how are the new departments and ministers getting on individually?

Summery summaries

The Department for Communities currently has circa 1,500 followers, has sent a couple of hundred tweets, and has a lot of Carl Frampton on its timeline.

The Frampton theme is even more clear on the profile of minister Paul Givan (who also gave a recent shout out to Norn Iron and Southampton footballer Steven Davis). Mr Givan has over 3,000 followers, sends about one tweet a day and his profile picture indicates that, as a child, he was an avid reader of Kays Catalogue.

DAERA has a paltry 400ish followers, at the time of writing – maybe farmers don’t tweet? – which is quite a bit less than minister Michelle McIlveen, who continues on the sporty theme, per party collegue Mr Givan, by proclaiming herself a fan of GAWA and Ulster Rugby. She has also made sure her digital poppy is in place in good time for November’s period of remembrance.

The Department for the Economy isn’t doing much better, with just under 600 followers, but for better and worse its 40 tweets so far are quite information heavy. Minister Simon Hamilton, however, makes up for this with a hefty number of followers – nearly 10,000 – and his tweets again contain some good reading, including (natch) his recent address to NICVA’s #BigIdeasNI Festival.

The Department of Education’s Twitter is full of pictures of minister Peter Weir meeting children. Mr Weir’s own account has a decent 3,500 followers, and he has sent a beefy 5,400 tweets since joining at the start of 2012, with recent ones indicating he has enjoyed watching the Olympics during summer break.

Health has nearly 2,700 followers, on an old account – though perhaps @HealthServiceNI was not the old DHSSPS account – while minister Michelle O’Neill, a long-time member of the Executive now given her stint at DARD, has a healthy 5,200 followers albeit is not a hugely frequent tweeter. She has pushed the button 1,200 times, but joined the social network nearly six years ago.

And so on

Finance has 816 followers – and, given recent events, maybe that will rise steeply – and has the usual mix of posts with a smiling minister holding a prop, standing outside a building, or sometimes sitting at a table.

Scope has written previously about the frankly hyperreal levels of social media engagement Máirtín Ó Muilleoir uses to fill his time. He’s got nearly 27,000 followers and is approaching 80,000 tweets (with no recent slowdown despite a certain amount of political pressure). @newbelfast is Twitter alpha dog.

Infrastructure is not the sexiest department. Sometimes Chris Hazzard stands beside a map on a flipchart. Sometimes he’s outside, wearing a fluorescent yellow jacket. In some ways infrastructure is the purest form of government. Current it’s just over 600 followers, less than one hundred tweets, and it doesn’t lend itself that well to the speed of modern communications.

However, the minister himself @ChrisHazzardSF is a young man – born on August 20, 1984, and again on January 1, 1985 according to Google – and unsurprisingly he is adept at the medium, personally. Nearly 10,000 tweets, over 5,000 followers, he’s doing pretty well.

The Justice department has barely got started – 33 tweets, 560 followers! The prison service must be fixed, then – but, for minister Claire Sugden, Twitter is especially important.

As an independent MLA she does not have the party comms infrastructure to back her up but 3,400 followers is good work for someone who would have only really had a constituency profile, rather than one that is NI-wide, until her appointment to the Executive recently. It’s also good to see that she follows a comparable number, around 2,500, indicating she uses the forum to listen as well as talk (something not true of all the people mentioned here).

Last but, of course, not least – the Executive Office. Commandeering the NI Executive twitter makes a certain sense, if it is still a little boring, while Martin McGuinness has long had a huge Twitter presence (6,500 tweets, 63k followers) – maybe the most interesting thing is that the First Minister did not just inherit a title when she came to power, oh no.

The dary/legendary handle of @dupleader was passed on from predecessor Peter Robinson. However, Arlene still has a bit to go to catch up with her (nominal) deputy FM, with less than a third the number of tweets, and less than half the number of followers. We expect she will make up some ground during the mandate, but not catch up.

It would be cruel not to include the junior ministers. Suffice to say that relatively young Alastair Ross and actually young Megan Fearon have presences roughly commensurate with their age in this increasingly digital world.

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