Socks, pies and pizza: How to turn the Prime Minister into an everyman

Bill English's smiling America's Cup photo quickly had 3000 likes. Andrew Little's red socks, just 418 likes.

Bill English's smiling America's Cup photo quickly had 3000 likes. Andrew Little's red socks, just 418 likes.

It is a tale of two pairs of red socks.

Early Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Bill English and opposition leader Andrew Little both posted on social media about Team New Zealand winning the America's Cup.

English posted a photograph of himself in red socks sitting on a beanbag with his thumb aloft, along with a video of him giving a double fist pump as Team NZ crossed the finish line.

Bill English's Facebook page has transformed since he became Prime Minister in December.
John Cowie

Bill English's Facebook page has transformed since he became Prime Minister in December.

Little posted a photograph of his ankles clad in red socks. No video, no smiling face. Just socks.

He has become much more active and popular on Facebook since becoming PM.
John Cowie

He has become much more active and popular on Facebook since becoming PM.

English's photo was liked over 3000 times and the video was viewed 33,000 times by 1pm on Tuesday, Little's socks attracted just 418 likes.

It was a perfect example of the different approaches both leaders are taking to social media.

Even as scandal has swirled around English over allegations that Clutha-Southland MP Todd Barclay made secret recordings of an electorate staffer, he has continued to engage people on social media.

Since becoming Prime Minister in December, English's Facebook account has transformed into a viral powerhouse.

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In April, he attracted international attention for posting a photo of his tinned spaghetti pizza. In May, he engaged thousands of Facebook users with a vote on which pie he should eat to celebrate the new budget. Later that same month he again hit the headlines for a video of his "walk/run" exercise regime.

This week, the Prime Minister joined Snapchat, a social media platform popular among young people, but not usually embraced by 55-year-old men like English.

While the Facebook posts may appear cringeworthy, social media experts say they are part of a sophisticated strategy to build an everyman image for English and introduce him to as many people as possible.

Social media expert Philippa Crick, director of Cre8ive Marketing, says English is clearly being advised by professionals.

"On Facebook, people like to see you are authentic, human and honest, so him posting about walk/runs shows his human side," she says.

"It looks to me like a deliberate strategy in place to keep it real. He's trying to say he is the real everyday man. He is not putting feta and spinach on his pizza.

"That is a clear strategy."

Crick says the best way to build an audience on Facebook is to ask questions in your posts and upload videos. In 2015, two videos were posted to English's Facebook page. Last year there were seven. So far this year he has posted 76 videos.

English's question on the budget pie attracted over 7000 votes and was commented on 1300 times.

His activity on Facebook has grown dramatically since becoming Prime Minister on December 12 and announcing a September election date in February. He has posted on Facebook 1095 times since joining the site in April 2009, which is an average of 0.37 times a day. In the last two months he has averaged 1.5 posts per day.

The evolution of English's profile picture shows how his online presentation has changed.

The November 2010 version shows him frowning slightly while sitting behind a desk and talking on the telephone. In February, it changed to a close up of his smiling face as sunshine glistens through trees behind him. The imagery has changed from distant and austere to smiling and friendly.

The style of his posts has also changed.

The walk/run video may appear home made, but it has been engineered to perform well on Facebook. The video is vertical in shape, has been subtitled so people can watch without sound and has been carefully edited to make it pithy and humorous. All things that make video popular on Facebook.

By contrast, a February video on Little's Facebook page has him standing in a shop doorway talking to reporters about the election date. It is a formal representation of a politician facing the media.

Since then, 21 videos have been posted to Little's Facebook page, with some attracting around 10,000 views. One clip from Parliament posted on his Facebook page in March has been viewed 22,000 times. A video about mental health care in May was viewed 15,000 times.

A spokesman for Andrew Little said the party was "very active on twitter, facebook and instagram" as effective platforms "to connect to people of all ages".

"We're really excited by the possibilities that social media offers to help us explain Labour's story to voters.

"We're very happy with the engagement we get from people, but we're continually looking at creative ways to improve the way we communicate to voters and we expect to roll out some innovative approaches in this regard during the election campaign."

English's new approach has seemingly worked.

Figures from BirdSong Analytics show his Facebook followers have grown from 75,000 in March to 98,000 now. The number of likes per post has grown from 60 in November to 1199 in December and 1034 in January. The pizza post attracted 9540 likes and 2312 comments alone.

The pizza photo also attracted the attention of satirist John Oliver, who devoted five minutes of his HBO television show to mocking him. But, mockery and media attention help spread the carefully underlying message of those posts – that English is an endearingly goofy everyman. He wears red socks for the America's Cup, can't cook, likes a good pie and has a slightly hapless exercise routine.

Social media expert Daniel Rolph, director of social strategy at Easy Social Media, says the team behind the strategy would want to remain anonymous. It breaks the illusion if his posts are revealed to be the work of a communications adviser.

"He would have a team behind him who are experts in social media who would be curating and brainstorming those ideas," he says.

"But it is all quite hush hush. They wouldn't advertise that. You will struggle to find anyone that says they did it. It is all quite secretive."

A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister did not answer specific questions about who runs English's Facebook page.

"He often comes up with the content, and occasionally posts himself, but generally leaves it up to his staff to manage his social media accounts given they're usually the ones responsible for taking photos and videos," she wrote in an email.

"No external agencies or individuals are employed specifically to advise the Prime Minister on his social media activity."

But social media can be risky territory for politicians.

When Christchurch MP Nicky Wagner wrote a tweet earlier this month saying she would rather be in Auckland Harbour than meeting disability groups, the response was swift and merciless. She was told to "get in the sea", asked to resign as disability issues minister and called tone deaf.

She later apologised and deleted the tweet, but the damage was done.

Social media can be a great place for politicians to connect with their voters, but the stakes are high if you get it wrong.

"One tweet can ruin a career, that is why it is so important," Rolph says.

He says Wagner's tweet was a perfect example of "how not to do social media".

"There are a lot of politicians that say what they want without thinking first.

"They have to be careful how they say things."

Crick says politicians need to think carefully about what they post and hire experts to plan their social media strategy.

"You can't just bang those things out. You have to be careful and consider.

"Politicians are using it but they don't understand the power that they have and how it can be turned against them.

"They don't think that once it is on social media it is on there forever."

Bill English's social media hits

April 4 - Spaghetti pizza

May 10 - The Walk/Run

May 24- Budget pie vote

 - Stuff

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