Did a hashtag cost the BC Liberals a majority government?
It was a brief encounter, only a few seconds, typical of an election campaign when a busy leader meets a non-supporter at a public event and brushes them aside. Liberal leader Christy Clark abruptly terminated a conversation with a retiree named Linda as Clark walked though the Lonsdale Quay. It was captured by media following the election. #IamLinda was born.
An error by zealous Liberal party members to try to make it look like Linda was an NDP plant resulted in a backlash and #IamLinda went viral. As the campaign wore on, while it was considered an embarrassing moment, few pundits thought it would have much impact when there were other larger issues for the electorate to consider. On election night, the Liberal incumbent in the North Van Lonsdale was soundly defeated and the BC Liberals came up one seat short of a majority.
There is a risk in giving too much credit to a single event, even one which goes viral however there are PR lessons in this that go beyond politics.
Everyone is watching and they have the evidence. The safest assumption for a politician, a company or an individual is that everything you do is being observed and recorded. Incidents take on global implications when captured on a cell phone camera. Airlines forcibly removing passengers may have resulted in a letter to the editor 20 years ago. Now everyone sees the evidence and the damage is ongoing.
Small events become big ones if you miss handle them. #IamLinda shows how a very minor incident can be made much worse if it is mishandled. These types of encounters happen every time a politician from any party goes out in the public and it almost never gets reported. But when unfounded accusations are made against a citizen expressing an opinion it becomes social media news even if Linda doesn’t want it to go that far.
Swift corrective action is necessary. It took six days for BC Liberals to admit their allegations were wrong. That is nearly one-quarter of the election campaign. Finding a picture on the internet of Linda and an NDP politician is not evidence of anything more than a citizen who is interested in politics. Jumping to a wrong conclusion and not correcting it immediately made matters many times worse.
When things go viral – an apology is the best course of treatment. Social media spreads information like a virus and it spreads negative information faster and farther. United Airlines problems became a global pandemic. In an election campaign you can’t be sure about the damage until the votes are counted. For a business you don’t know until you start adding up your sales. Time is not your friend. The old adage time heals is now only true if you put the apology Band-Aid on the wound.
Information is permanent and access is democratic (for the most part). This is a lesson which we will see played out in the coming weeks. Normally after an election the platform, the policies of a party are soon forgotten only to be resurrected in election attack ads four years later. A minority government keeps those principles front and centre. A minority government is by its nature is one of compromise. Principles often move aside in favour of doing something “for the good of the province.” This presents a danger to the Greens who doubled their vote, and tripled their seat count. They have momentum but on the big visible issues they are not in alignment with either major party. This is what makes the coming weeks so fascinating. The Greens principles and vision is there for all to see and any compromise, even for the good of the province can easily be misunderstood. The hashtags are probably already being written.