By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter
How to be successful on Twitter
Anyone who cares to can have their own definition of how to be successful on Twitter. Mine is: the writer's tweets must give a sense of his personality. You must get more across to your audience via the vast broadcast system that is Twitter than, say, links to a video that you believe people should see or an article that you think people should read. It obviously helps for this purpose to try meaningfully to engage with people who want meaningfully to engage with you.
By this definition, millions of people with tiny followerships are Twitter successes, projecting a sense of the texture and flavour of their daily lives, merrily following those who follow them and happily responding to anyone who isn't a time-waster. By it also, the great Niall Fergusson is a Twitter failure, despite having over 45,000 followers, since most of his tweets are links to "my latest for Newsweek", and he follows a mere six people.
David Cameron is a Twitter Disaster…
Then again, Professor Ferguson doubtless believes that he has better things to do with his time than engage with entire tribes of trolls. I agree with him. Were I not a journalist, I wouldn't be on Twitter at all. Engaging with other people already takes up a lot of my time, and I would rather it didn't consume any more. This helps to explain why I am a far bigger Twitter failure than the Professor. Like him, I mostly tweet links to pieces, but have some 40,000 fewer followers.
David Cameron has been on Twitter for a month, and is proving to be a bit of a Twitter failure himself. Why? Because he obviously doesn't want to be on it. He offered his view of Twitter right at the start, saying that "too many tweets might make a twat". When he finally did go on it, he referred back to this view, announcing that he wouldn't send "too many tweets". This was a bit like a footballer promising before a match not to score too many goals.
…And if he's going to be on Twitter at all, he ought to strive to be a Twitter success…
I am not saying for a moment that the Prime Minister has to be on Twitter. Nor am I suggesting that now he is on the system he should engage with those who don't care what he has to say. Nor am I even arguing that Twitter is in itself a good thing. It has minuses (the insufficiency of 400 characters for a full discussion; the cruel or simply crazy minority who tweet) as well as pluses – such as the big one I claim for it, namely the way in which it can project a person.
What I am saying is that now Mr Cameron's decided to go on Twitter, he should roll up his sleeves and make a proper fist of it. He and his team are smart enough to know how to do so, as the tweets that he's issued so far indicate. There is a dry joke about his number of followers (128,000 and counting), a birthday celebration photograph, a tweet pushing the main point of his excellent conference speech.
…And here's how he could succeed
But there have been only 13 tweets to date. There was nothing for five days between October 10 and 15, and there has been nothing since. (The Prime Minister started tweeting on October 6.) He is not using Twitter consistently to project a sense of himself – to convey what Alastair Campbell, in his shrewd piece behind the Times paywall yesterday, called "a consistent, authentic message that speaks to core values and policies over time".
To criticise without making suggestions is negative. So here are some positive ideas. The Prime Minister could tweet when he next pops into Morrisons. He could tweet when next in a Cornish pub with his wife. He could tweet when he next takes his son, Arthur, to watch Aston Villa. He could tweet about the Larry v Freya catfight. He could tweet when he next goes to the cinema. He could tweet about Lawrence of Arabia or beach volleyball or The Dark Side Of The Moon.
If he can make TV work for him, he can do the same with Twitter
I can already see ConservativeHome readers throwing up their hands in horror at such vulgarity. Three points in response. First, the personal is political in 2012, and has probably always been so. Second – in qualification – the personal must be authentic. There is no sense in Gordon Brown manufacturing a love of the Arctic Monkeys if he doesn't listen to them. But there is good sense in David Cameron talking about Lawrence of Arabia if he loves the film.
And finally, Mr Cameron has already used the media in every single instance that I cite. So for example, he has been photographed with Samantha in a Cornish pub, and his spokesman has put out a statement about the catfight. Using Twitter instead of a TV picture, or as a complement to it, is like putting up a speech on YouTube as well as getting it on the six o'clock news. It's just a different way of achieving the same aim.
It isn't beyond the collective wit of Mr Cameron and his team to agree a Twitter message once a day
I'm taking it for granted that he should also use Twitter to project those "core values and policies" to which Mr Campbell referred. For example, the Prime Minister could restrict his political tweets to ones about the National Health Service only. This would send a unmistakable, unmissable message – that the three most important letters to him really are NHS. I'm not advising such a course. But I am illustrating the power of Twitter to communicate a message.
There is an obvious objection to all this – that the Prime Minister doesn't have time to tweet. But that's what his media team is there for: it isn't beyond the collective wit of Mr Cameron and his aides to agree a Twitter message once a day. To repeat: it doesn't matter if I'm not a success on Twitter. I am a person of no importance. Mr Cameron is the Prime Minister. Twitter could be a valuable tool for him. He should use it well, or not use it at all.
7.45pm Update Two NHS-based tweets today (see below). Has someone in Downing Street been reading ConHome?