Julia Gillard’s communications chief John McTernan has a message for those who scoff at the Prime Minister for “hanging out” with voters on Google+ or live-blogging on Mamamia: get used to it.

Over recent months, Gillard has embarked on a social media blitz — from Saturday’s Google+ hangout to live blogs with The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun and women’s site Mamamia — while eschewing appearances with high-rating talkback hosts such as Alan Jones, Neil Mitchell and Ray Hadley.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott, who used to chat weekly with The Daily Telegraph’s online readers, now regularly fields questions from Twitter users at the #askTony hashtag.

“In a fragmented media landscape you can no longer get your message across using just the mainstream media,” McTernan, a former adviser to Tony Blair, told Crikey. “Live blogs, Pinterest, Google+ hang outs, social media, online town hall meetings — they are a part of political communication forever now.

“It’s no longer an innovation — it’s a structural part of the landscape.”

The prime minister’s Google+ appearance hasn’t been a universal hit. Some commentators have criticised Gillard for regurgitating cliched soundbites rather than engaging in genuine conversation; others felt Sunday Age political editor Misha Schubert, who moderated the debate, was too involved in the discussion. So far, the video of the hour-long event has attracted three times as many dislikes as likes on YouTube.

Twenty thousand people tuned in to the hang-out compared to over 800,000 for Q&A.

McTernan reckons engaging with social media is “low risk and high reward” — especially for progressive politicians.

“The internet is a more deliberative forum than talkback radio,” he said. “You get a richer policy debate. With something like the carbon tax, the mining tax, aged care reform, there are a lot of things to say. It’s a good forum for expressing those types of policies.”

As for the argument that engaging with social media is a way of avoiding scrutiny from journalists, he’s got two words: “total bollocks”.

“Social media doesn’t replace interaction with the mainstream media — it’s a huge addition,” he said.

Eyal Halamish, the CEO of OurSay, the group that co-ordinated the Google+ hangout, says it is notable the three most voted-for questions were about policy — gay marriage, veterans’ entitlements and school chaplains — rather than internal ALP politics. “It was a very policy-based discussion,” he said.

While congratulating the PM for agreeing to answer the three most popular questions, Halamish says he hopes all questions asked at the next event will be decided by popular vote. Fairfax Media selected sine of the twelve questions asked on Saturday.

Mamamia editor Mia Freedman says the Prime Minister’s June visit to the website’s office, where she spent an hour answering questions from readers, was more than just a publicity stunt.

“She answered questions on why the government doesn’t subsidise nannies, why childcare workers aren’t paid more. She didn’t just come in to get some pictures taken and pretend to answer a few questions. I didn’t feel it was token; our readers really appreciate it and I think it worked well for the government,” she told Crikey.

“At the last election, leaders were slow to understand the power, reach and influence of online. The opposition has been slow to embrace it; all Tony Abbott’s [Mamamia’s] posts have been initiated by me. The ALP has been much more proactive about engaging with our readers. At the next election, I expect to see a lot of politicians coming and talking to our readers.”

Jim Macnamara, an expert in political communication from the University of Technology, Sydney, says the increasing use of live blogs and Google+ shows politicians are beginning to realise social media is about more than just pumping out links to press releases.

“Social media is meant to be a two-way conversation, but for many politicians it’s just about talking,” he said. “Few do much listening. At the last election, 98% of Twitter use by politicians was just broadcasting. Only Malcolm Turnbull really engaged in conversations. Politicians going in and answering questions from the public is a shift, and a reassuring shift in my view.”

Peter Fray

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