This week on the Social Leaders series we are talking to Jo Swinson. A Member of Parliament for over a decade, Jo was both Minster for Women and Equalities, and latterly Minster for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs. On leaving Parliament, Jo founded Equal Power Consulting in order to help businesses identify and deliver organisational change to enable their people to thrive, whether they are women or men. You can find Jo on Twitter as @joswinson.
Jo is also chair of Maternity Action, the UK’s leading charity committed to ending inequality and improving the health and well-being of pregnant women, as well as chairing the CIPD’s Policy Forum, which brings together senior HR leaders to share expertise and thought-leadership on current and future challenges around the world of work.
Here is what Jo had to say about social leadership (or you can read the transcript below).
What are your social media platforms of choice and why?
Undoubtedly Twitter is my favourite social media platform – it’s the one I’ve really been using for the longest and spend the most time on. I joined back in 2008 – I was one of the first MPs to be on Twitter and really enjoyed experimenting with it as a new form of engagement and tweeting Prime Minister’s Questions live back in the days when that was frowned upon by other Members of Parliament who took a dim view of all this newfangled smartphone rubbish. I really enjoy Twitter for its immediacy, for the brevity of Twitter and also the curation of randomness that you can put together in your Twitter stream so I’ve got everything from HR to a bit of political commentary, feminism and equality campaigners and then random stuff like pictures of Scottish mountains and the Science Porn account which has little nuggety facts about science which just make you think differently. I love that about Twitter. I’m on Facebook but I’ve been off and on with it. I’m on LinkedIn which is quite useful professionally but I find it hard to get excited about. The other one which I’m just experimenting with is Instagram which I’m still fairly new to but I am enjoying, particularly because it’s making me think about images differently and experimenting with what makes a great picture and how to communicate through imagery.
How has your use of social media benefited you in your leadership role?
I think using social media can be really helpful for leaders in terms of connecting and I certainly found that when I was a Member of Parliament, I was able to connect directly with some constituents through social media. As a minister I would find on issues like employment law that there was a whole Twitter and employment law community online where again I could get that direct connection. In researching my book, I find that there are equality campaigners on Twitter that I’ve got that direct access to. So I think it’s particularly good for connecting.
For Chief Executives, it’s really hard sometimes for them to know what’s going on on the shop floor of the business, what their customers are thinking and I think Twitter and other social media networks can be really helpful for just bridging that gap and putting people in touch with one another. Then, I suppose separately, particularly in the political sphere, having that kind of campaign platform, the ability to mobilise people, whether it’s in campaigning, whether it’s in signing petitions, but that ability of social media to bring people together and get them excited about something is really helpful for people who are trying to lead a movement of change.
How engaged do you find the rest of your organisation with social media?
I’ve used social media in a variety of organisations. I’m now chairing the CIPD Policy Forum and the CIPD is pretty engaged in social media. Obviously, for a long time, I was a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament and the way in which political parties engage with social media can be quite different and has to take into account the reality of the fact that you’ve got different tribes of politics, if you like, online. I do think the Liberal Democrat press account is normally quite good at being able to develop a sense of humour, not be too serious and not take themselves too seriously on Twitter. I think that’s there’s a bit more personality injected into social media.
I think across the organisations that I have worked in, the common factor is that people’s use of social media is very much dependent on whether they individually like doing it. You can all see the Twitter accounts that are basically sending out corporate press releases or the line to take and that doesn’t really engage anyone. Yet in all sorts of organisations you will get people who are really good at engaging and understanding the narrative and the personality that a particular organisation needs to have online and engaging with people in that way. I find in politics, as much as I find in business, that it’s much more dependent on individuals than about the overall organisation. I think that it is a problem if organisations are too prescriptive about saying “everybody must be on this network or that network” and do X or Y: while yes, it makes sense if you’re a professional to have a LinkedIn profile, but how people engage with social media is actually a pretty personal choice for them to make.
What, if any, downsides do you see to being a leader on social media?
Social media can be great but there are downsides as well: one of the biggest downsides is the sheer “volume versus time” conundrum, particularly if people’s expectations are that everything they send will be responded to. I found as a politician that could be quite difficult to manage particularly if there were a few days where I was intensely busy in a Bill Committee then perhaps doing Question Time and then I would find I had hundreds and hundreds of mentions. Sometimes you wouldn’t even be clear that you’d been able to see everything because you’d scroll through but it hadn’t showed you everything and it could be hard to keep track of so I think that volume is an issue – although one which partly used to be resolved by managing expectations that you will try to engage but you cannot ever guarantee that every single thing that somebody says to you on social media will automatically get a response. You need to have a different mechanism where people, if they want a guaranteed response, can send an email or a letter or some other way of contact.
I think there’s also this echo chamber difficulty. It’s really easy for people to look at their social media and think that the whole world thinks the same way that they do. We saw it in 2014 with the independence referendum in Scotland where many fervent supporters of Independence just could not believe the result – they literally questioned whether it was fair because everybody that they knew or they spoke to was backing independence. You see the same things in the Trump election or the Brexit debate here in this country, where people have their own communities that are populated by others that believe the same thing. I think that in itself can be quite dangerous you know: it’s helpful if we come across different viewpoints and that we can make sure that different people’s ideas are taken into account.
The other thing I would say is that the abuse can be a downside, so it’s the opposite of the echo chamber that you almost get deluged with people just shouting you down and that particularly is an issue in politics or for people who are in the public eye. Interestingly, when I stopped being MP it was like somebody had just turned off a tap and this sort of steady stream of abuse that I would get daily and would peak if I’d ever been on the television almost came to a halt. Now I only really notice it if I do something like a paper review on Sky, where last summer I criticised Nigel Farage’s comments saying that migrants were all rapists and suddenly I had this torrent of, Islamophobic in that case, Twitter abuse.
How have you used social media to connect with key stakeholders?
I use social media regularly to connect with stakeholders and I’ve done that for constituents and for people who were involved in the different industries and areas that I was legislating on and taking policy decisions on as a Minister. Sometimes I’ve done that directly through @ replies on Twitter, by retweeting people or by following different accounts so that I can see what different stakeholder groups are saying. Sometimes I’ve done that very explicitly with things like Twitter Q&As or having an hour or where I say, “I’m going to be online and able to answer questions on this particular issue” and that kind of approach can be helpful if volume’s an issue because it means that people aren’t expecting to get you all the time, but you are making yourself available to people nonetheless. I think a mix of these different tools has proved very effective – particularly as people are often surprised to get a response and to have somebody in a high profile position engage with them on social media and people do appreciate it.
What advice would you give to other leaders who want to use social media?
In terms of using social media for the first time, maybe you’re signed up to a couple of platforms but you haven’t spent a lot of time on it, I’d say first of all, spend a bit of time playing with it and getting familiar with it. Follow other people, watch what they do, get a bit of a feel for how it works and you will over time develop your own style.
I would say the number of one piece of advice I would give would be to be authentic, to be yourself. Just sounding like the corporate line does not work on social media – there’s no benefit in doing that. Being able to show a little bit more of yourself – and it doesn’t need to be tweeting pictures of every single thing to eat – but just being able to show a human side and be yourself I think is something which is very much appreciated by others on social media and helps it to be somewhere where you can enjoy and you can feel like you’re being yourself and engaging in that authentic way.
Huge thanks to Jo for her really interesting reflections on her experiences of using social media as a leader. Next week on our social leaders series we talk to Asif Choudry, Sales and Marketing Director of Resource, who shares his strategy for using social media to build his business and drive sales.