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Debbie Flint is Conservative Women’s Chair and Deputy Chair, Fundraising & Membership, for Torridge and West Devon.

The left-wing Twitter bubble may have got it very wrong at the last election, but we still face an uphill struggle against them online, as Conservatives fight to cut through on social media. No point responding directly to try to put right their ceaseless mantra of uncaring Conservatives. No point reacting to name-calling. Instead, we must be cleverer.

In our history, I don’t think we’ve ever faced such vitriol due to relentless Tory-bashing. Many of us don’t even confess our political leanings amongst our peers. Especially if you work in certain industries where it’s totally out of favour to praise Boris Johnson. So it’s time for a newer approach. By and large, doorstep campaigning is out. So in Devon we are starting to play social media on our own terms.

In Torridge and West Devon, Geoffrey Cox’s constituency, we have been identifying heart-warming human interest stories to report on in our Association posts, but leading with the human angle, in the style of an anecdote told by a neighbour or a friend. That way, more likes, more shares, more “traction.” Our councillors’ name recognition should be greater in the May 2021 county council elections as a result. .

We also exploit the many behind-the-scenes tools Facebook offers, thereby maximising these new contacts. For instance, using the one-click ‘invite’ button to anyone who likes a post to invite them to like the page; following up a comment with a reply if needed, and being sure to ‘like’ all positive comments; crucially using other tools which deter too much trolling. And training our candidates and current councillors to use all these tools and to pepper their pages with more touchy-feely pictures and stories, getting their personality across and avoiding a timeline jammed full of dry statistics and graphics.

Linda Hellyer leads the way. County councillor for Bideford East, she spearheads our “close the digital divide – donate a laptop” scheme. She has already been pictured on posts with grateful recipients – deserving local students who couldn’t otherwise learn online and don’t mind being featured. (Please note that yet more students have received theirs away from cameras – it’s not just done for the PR.) We’re collecting laptops aged up to five-years-old to be refurbished – voluntarily – by Holsworthy Computers, any replacement small parts being covered by our fundraising. Laptops are delivered personally by our councillors once they identify a keen student, or their parent. Linda said several people came up to her in the street, saying they didn’t even realise she was a councillor. The word-of-mouth follow-on about these real-life case stories is priceless, and more valuable and far-reaching within a community than any online criticism. Her laptops post gained a reach of 2,255 and 120 engagements – all positive – far exceeding her more standard posts.

It got further coverage when Radio Devon and local papers got in touch, taking her exposure even further.  They were then perfectly placed to cover Linda’s next initiative – a compassionate treatment of the challenge faced by the blind during COVID. How? She put on a blindfold and had three of the locals guide her around the town so she experienced exactly what they face on a daily basis. She pounded their uneven pavements, and encountered their unexpected obstacles – sometimes literally – made worse by Covid restrictions – guide dogs don’t do social distancing. The payoff-ending to this social media tale is that she took massive action, got ‘tactile pavement slabs’ installed eg next to the quay, with more tweaks planned. Original, human, #conservativesCaringintheCommunity.

Holsworthy district councillor David Jones‘s run of the mill tale of a Tory installing a bin, was told from the angle of the local resident in her 80s who explained in enthusiastic detail how it impacted her life and daily journeys. As a side benefit, she immediately joined the Conservative Party – she was so impressed with David and his hard work.

Chris Edmonds, County councillor for Tamarside in West Devon, helped provide a post on our Facebook page about the local businesses he’s helped, with form filling for COVID grants, but from the human angle and with more examples and fewer generalisations. We boosted the post but targeted his local area only, with the hope that it caught voters’ eyes more than any colourful graphic about policy could do for him.

The ‘over the backyard fence’ approach we use in my day job, in television sales, translates well for getting cut-through amongst Facebookers who are only too used to three second attention grabbers. And we are aiming to use much more video, because the algorithms of Facebook automatically give them more exposure.

In the December 2019 election campaign, I helped provide a constant video presence for our MP – the first election where social media has been as important as leaflets. Geoffrey became adept at being filmed – short pieces to camera with action, interesting local backgrounds, and always making a pithy point.  Some posts did well and got boosted – ads and the ‘boost post’ button can help us reach new constituents. They’d rarely sit down and read a detailed A5 leaflet but respond well as they scroll through their daily updates on Facebook, to the human side of their MP, and sometimes his dog.

For the brave, doing live Facebook posts could garner even more attention.

We will be able to provide a bit of training for this as well. Debo Sellis, County councillor for Tavistock, a self-confessed technophobe, is game, having embraced the need to do this with gusto. “It’s just got to be done,” she says, “even though I would have run a mile from all this a couple of years ago.” Her posts are gaining good reactions and her consistency is key.

Specific help from an outside paid expert can also be fundamental – Alfie Carlisle was used by our chairman, John Gray, when he stood in Exeter during the election. Alfie also guides us through the maze of how to place ads and surveys on Facebook – and we’re all learning something new every day. Like the fact that Facebook ads must now display who paid for them, making careful identity clearance essential. Confusing for some, but Alfie has a map.

We post regularly, not just sharing the important updates from CCHQ, but many local stories like these and even a ‘Friday funny.’

It’s not natural territory for many Tories – this social media lions’ den. So last month we hosted a Zoom ‘how-to’ on Conquering Facebook and Winning Elections. Organiser, Julian Ellacott, leads us volunteers as Chair of the South West region and is planning a second session in the New Year. We recorded the training for those who missed it, and can provide a PDF of the bullet points. By spring, most of our councillors will hopefully have their own pages and be following the above recommendations…

Creating solid back-up is the flip side, for when the anti-Tory gang pile in, with newly formed support groups on Whats App, or ‘closed’ (private) groups on Facebook, will not only share links to each other’s pages and increase a councillor’s following. They will also help alert each other to swiftly post positive comments to provide balance, should somebody get trolled. Julian’s so-called ‘Jedi’ groups will come into their own by Spring.

Shaun Bailey’s team in London have a ‘Shaun’s sharers’ What’s App group too, and more. We’ll have some ‘momentum’ of our own.

Hopefully our leaflets will follow suit and be more chatty too – Julian is keen on more white space and more pictures – for the three second brigade.

Other recommendations for priming connections on social media include this from a very forward thinking, Sarah Codling, a councillor in Weston, who presented the Zoom session with me. She took the initiative early on and set up a local community group for Weston that now has 2,000 members. Getting involved in a non-political way on your local groups helps people know who you are. We get more likes with this approach – our equivalent of puppies and kittens – showing with undeniable examples, our compassionate conservatism.

In a year where there seems to have been a never-ending blitz against the very ethos of being a Conservative, and the lack of communication at the top has been in the spotlight, it’s up to us to spread the word. And don’t get me started on Instagram – our future is doomed if we can’t get through to the youngsters, and that may be the next port of call. No idea about Tik Tok – maybe I’ll ask Jacob Rees-Mogg about that.

Please contact me on Fundraising@torridgeandwestdevonconservatives.org or fundraising@debbieflint.com and check out the many CCHQ PDFs on the various social media topics.