As every politician knows, you’re never going to please everyone; so an unhappy posting on the Gatley Facebook group mentioning my name wasn’t a great surprise. Sometimes people simply disagree with me, and sometimes I get things wrong.
On this occasion the complaint was about my lack of response. The resident was upset that he’d posted a query on the Facebook group, tagging me so it popped up in my notifications, and I’d not replied.
Fair enough, perhaps. Except his post was made on a Tuesday lunchtime in August – on a week when I happened to be on holiday abroad – and the complaint was that an hour had passed without response. Not a week or a day, but an hour.
And here’s a bit of a social media conundrum for those councillors using Facebook or Twitter to communicate with residents. These tools make fast communication a breeze – you’re notified that someone’s mentioned you and it’s a matter of a few seconds to reply. Two Facebook groups cover my ward, and they have over 3,000 members between them. They’re an excellent way to talk to residents, answering questions and helping with problems.
But what about when your reply takes longer? Just a few years ago people would write to their councillors by good old Royal Mail and no-one would blink an eye at a response taking days or weeks. Those days are gone – I doubt I receive more than ten letters a year from constituents. As people come to expect a speedy response from me (because that’s what they normally get) delays become more noticeable.
One strategy is to deliberately slow down your replies on email, Facebook and Twitter. Have a policy of never replying in less than a few hours, setting a realistic expectation of a response time. That way when you can’t reply sooner, people aren’t so surprised. It’s a pretty good approach, but not one that suits the way I work.
If you’re away for longer periods you can always include an out of office message on your email and phone. That works less well for Facebook and Twitter. As a councillor my address is published on the Council website, as well as my own, so advertising to thousands of people that I’m on holiday probably isn’t the cleverest home security idea.
When I holiday in the UK (as I normally do) I’ll check for messages a couple of times a day and get back to people. If I do it too much, my family – quite rightly – start complaining. This year I had a rare foreign holiday (exotic Belgium) but with wifi in the apartment I was able to follow the same approach. That meant the good people of Cheadle and Gatley mostly got a reply from me within 12 hours. It might not have satisfied my friend on Facebook, but other residents seemed happy enough.
To be honest, I don’t really like my solution. As one of three councillors in my ward (though the only one on Facebook or Twitter), it would be nice to be able to holiday for a week or two without the ever-present eye of the Internet on me and without coming back to a huge pile of comments complaining at my failure to respond to questions.
Perhaps others have better social media solutions.