Can #CasinoMike survive the social media storm?

Out of professional curiosity I visited Mike Baird’s Facebook page this week and quickly found myself contemplating the closest corner to curl up and rock in. In a matter of days, the New South Wales Premier has gone from the “most chilled Premier ever” to finding himself the subject of a social media storm.

As a former social media advisor to a premier, I feel nothing but sympathy for Mike Baird and his social media team. Believe me, I know exactly how they feel right now.

But I’m also wondering how on earth this happened. Because it was the Premier, not Matt Barrie, that started this storm.

 
 

So, uh, what happened?  

On February 9, Mike Baird published a lengthy post on his Facebook page about alcohol fuelled violence and the lock out laws his government introduced to tackle the issue.  

 

Let’s start with a statistic about Sydney’s nightlife that matters: alcohol related assaults have decreased by 42.2 per...

Posted by Mike Baird on Monday, 8 February 2016
 

The TL;DR version: Baird claims alcohol related assaults have decreased since lock out laws were introduced.  

Baird's post appears to be in response to Matt Barrie’s phenomenally successful essay which argues the lock out laws are a moral crusade that have wiped out Sydney businesses and made the city an international laughing stock.

Barrie’s LinkedIn post has been viewed more than 950,000 times, and excerpts were published as opinion pieces by various mainstream news organisations. His work can be credited as the catalyst for the current lock out laws debate, at a time when the Queensland Government is attempting to implement similar laws. 

For me, the most interesting part has been how this issue was handled on social media. 

 

A storm on the horizon

Barrie’s essay was published on February 3, and appeared in mainstream media over the following 48 hours. 

Meanwhile, on February 5, the NSW Premier posted a  a photo update on a hospital development in the Northern Beaches. This post, which was quite ordinary, attracted the usual feedback a Premier can expect on Facebook - “Is this in your electorate?”, “Where’s our hospital?" and “There’s more to the state than the capital city, you know”. There were also quite a few positive comments, which is also normal for Baird. 

  • On February 5, two days after Barrie's post, there were two comments on Baird's Facebook about lock out laws. 
  • On February 6, another two comments appeared - one by the author of a post the previous day. 
  • On February 7, there number of comments about lock out laws doubled to four.
  • There were six on February 8. 

As much as this sounds like the start of a bad horror movie epidemic, for a state premier, 14 Facebook comments should not ring any alarm bells. It certainly shouldn’t trigger this kind of knee-jerk reaction. 

Which is why I struggle to understand what happened next. 

On February 9, Baird decided to weigh in on the issue to address the “hysteria” about lockout laws. The social media storm became a Category 3 cyclone that had crossed the coast.

The main question I have is WHY? Why on earth would Baird and his social media team make this move? 

By acknowledging the debate and posting this response on social media, Baird legitimised the debate and opened up the floodgates. And boy, did that social media storm surge.

Baird’s post has attracted more than 16,000 comments, has been shared more than 2654 times, and spawned a cluster of news articles criticising the Premier’s post, his cool, and the laws. The issue has gone from a viral opinion piece that would have faded away once the next cause popped up, to a subject that has completely hijacked the news agenda.  

 

Surprise! People care about things!

Baird has since admitted he was surprised by the response to his post. This surprise is a bit of a worry. The job of a politician is to represent the people, and that means being in touch with what the people are thinking. Moderating and reading hundreds of comments every day, usually means the social media advisor is in a unique place to understand what is happening outside the Parliamentary bubble. 

A premier’s social media advisor can know what issues are guaranteed to get a big response (absolutely any mention of cyclists), and what issues are on the boil. If you follow the conversation, you can often identify issues weeks before they hit the mainstream media.

Baird’s post came almost a week after the response to Barrie’s essay. So the question is, did the Premier and his team gamble that his popularity would outweigh the “hysteria” about lock out laws or were they caught out not listening? 

 

Batten down the hatches

Once a storm like this hits, you have to tie everything down and ride it out. It can be difficult to know what to do. Do you try to control the situation by moderating posts and responding to comments?  Baird’s team gave this a crack… although the usual humour fell flat. 
 

Then there is the problem where you are asked the same question, or face the same criticism, over and over again. While everyone tells you to be funny and original and never copy and paste responses, when you’re dealing with a social media storm on a politician’s page, it’s just not possible. There are only so many ways to say the exact same thing! 

 
 


After a while, you simply cannot keep up with the comments, the responses to comments, and the people posting the same comment in multiple places.  Sometimes you simply have to take your hands off the wheel. It appears for Baird’s team that decision was made after half a dozen responses by the page. And that’s when the next round starts.  
 

Nothing to hide

 
 

It is a truth universally acknowledged among political social media advisors, that no matter what you do, someone will always accuse you of deleting their post. You say you haven’t, but no-one is ever going to believe you. Particularly when screenshots like this pop up.

 
 

In this case, Team Baird said they stepped back and let the comments unroll. It is quite clear the usual moderation standards aren’t in place. But the fact is the numbers were going down, not up. Which is why this comment in the thread is particularly interesting. 

Facebook’s a pretty good ally to have in the I didn’t delete your post argument. It’s even better when they actually weigh into the debate. But it also indicates that Facebook may not be prepared for this level of political feedback on Facebook. 

 

After the storm

As I write this three days later, Baird’s ill-fated defence of lock out laws is still the last thing he published on Facebook. It’s 11pm on a Friday night, and it appears the bar closures have left people turning to Facebook for their kicks. 

Baird's post is still attracting comments every few minutes. While it would still feel terrible to be stuck in the midst of this, the actual storm has already peaked. The quality of the comments is rapidly declining, and multiple calls to action from activists are trying to keep things alive.  

There is no doubt that the people have won this round. They have hijacked the news agenda and stopped the Premier from using his Facebook Page in the usual fashion. 

On Thursday, the Premier was on Twitter adding to the social media sensation that was #IronBoy, but no-one dared to post anything on Facebook.  

So how long until this all blows over? My guess is Monday. If there is no fuel added to the fire, the online storm will begin to ease as people find other things to do over the weekend. There will be some diehards who will continue to fight the good fight with hashtags, but the cyclone can now be downgraded to a tropical storm.  

But, as every Queenslander knows all too well, a disaster like this is going to leave some damage. Baird has already committed to reviewing the lock out laws. An upcoming inquiry will only keep this issue on the boil. They “hysterical” opponents to the laws have struck a pretty good blow on the Premier, and they are finding more, and more supporters every day. 

Then there's that cheeky little punch Melbourne threw at their old enemy, Sydney.  

 
 

Even when things move on, I suspect the Premier is going to be left with a scar from this battle. The storm spawned the hashtag #casinomike and a league of memes to make sure it stays memorable. 

 
 


So will this little incident undo the Premier of New South Wales? No. It takes more than one social media storm to wipe out a premier. But I think it’s fair to say a little bit of the shine has worn off. 

And as for Baird’s social media team… please, put down your phone, go to a bar, have a stiff drink or two, and let me know if you need a hug. The urge to rock in a corner does pass eventually.