A few days ago, after a very heated political campaign for local and regional elections that confirmed the center-right coalition led by the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as the leading one in most of the country, Berlusconi announced he would use Facebook to better communicate with Italian citizens.
This announcement, which was made through the Facebook page of the newspaper he owns (Il Giornale), was saluted by most of his supporters in the social media expert community as a great step forward.
Previous relationships of Berlusconi’s government with Facebook and social media in general have not been easy.
In May 2009 his minister for public administration and innovation criticized government employees for wasting their time on social media and issued a very restrictive policy. Incidentally, it would be interesting to see what he thinks now: would he prevent employees from reading updates on Berlusconi’s Facebook wall?
In December 2009, after Berlusconi was attacked and hit with a little statue, his government threatened to close Facebook groups that cheered the attacker.
Berlusconi’s move is probably due to the growing size and relevance of spontaneous Facebook groups that are opposing his government’s politics and his personal attitudes on various subjects, ranging from his conflict of interest caused by being a media tycoon, to a number of proposed laws that are claimed to be serving his personal rather than the general interest. Also, one of the emerging forces in Berlusconi’s opposition comes from a former comedian, Beppe Grillo. Grillo has been running for years a blog with a huge number of followers, which has morphed into a new political force capturing a sizeable percentage of votes at the last elections.
Unfortunately Berlusconi has been ill-advised by his media experts. In fact, addressing people by using the official Facebook page of his own newspaper as a stage does not witness the best possible engagement strategy. In order to be effective, a political leader’s presence on social media needs to be less official, more informal, more sociable.
If his goal is to rally his own troops, he does not need his own Facebook presence: there are plenty of groups, blogs, and even social media gurus amongst his supporters and he could just feature as a guest on one of their social networks or – even better – just let these influencers do their job and build consensus and support from the ground up.
If his goal is to win the hearts and minds of those who oppose him and his government, he won’t do so by replicating the same approaches and attitudes that he shows on TV or when addressing a crowd in the streets.
He should learn a lesson from one of his allied parties, the Northern League, which was the real winner of these elections in spite of its somewhat controversial approaches to immigration and federalism. This party spent very little time on air and on traditional media, and deployed most of its campaign in the field, building consensus from the bottom up.
Using Facebook like a TV channel is a recipe for failure. I am surprised that most of Berlusconi’s loyal supporters in the social media expert community do not get this and, in applauding his move, do not realize they may be helping the emperor show around with no clothes.
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