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Politics in the digital age
by Sofia Gkiousou
2007-07-13 10:49:54
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It all started when – as is customary every summer in Greece – half the forests were set alight with devastating results. The enterprising Greeks (nobody knows who exactly) started circulating an e-mail to ministries, political parties and other authorities demanding the complete reforestation of the affected areas. It’s a balanced text, admitting mistakes from governments, authorities and citizens equally and asking for cooperation and understanding to turn the situation around.

The slight controversy happened when various senders started receiving the following message from the Press Office of Synaspismos (www.syn.gr) a left-leaning political party.

Your message

To: [… ] SYN-Grafeio Typou
Subject: Φτάνει
Sent: Thu, 5 Jul 2007 12:16:41 +0300

was deleted without being read on Thu, 5 Jul 2007 12:39:42 +0300

This “deleted without being read” enraged some of the senders. The main concern was that the message was effectively being ignored by a party that insists on its environmentally friendly policies and its ‘close to the people’ attitude. Synaspismos’ motto is ‘for the left and for ecology’ after all.

One of the Greek bloggers who received this ‘deleted’ message was telson (www.telson.org). He promptly circulated his annoyance via e-mail, saying that “a serious political party should not be deleting even one line from citizens. They should be responding according to their political agenda to each and every single one of us”.

I don’t think I need to spell this out to people who follow an online magazine – telson’s annoyance was soon communicated to tens of people who forwarded it on criticising Synaspismos. Maria Vladimirovich of their Press Office feels that the party has always been outspoken on environmental issues. She told me that it is unfair to put Synaspismos in the same boat as the major ministries who are responsible for the situation. While she is happy that the subject is gaining in publicity it disappoints her that the party’s views and support for the environment are not being recognised.

But then why are the messages deleted? Maria told me that they have received hundreds of these e-mails so far, all of them exactly the same. After a point they started deleting them, recognising them for what they were from the title.

Is that wrong? Of course it is not. Their Press Office has received the message, the party has received the message and they know about it. The problem is not that they deleted it. The problem is that they automatically let people know that they have deleted it without having read it. For one solitary sender behind a computer screen it does not matter that this is a mass e-mail and it has probably been received hundreds of times before. The sender wants to know that his voice is important to the party. Sending out an automated deletion message is bad public relations practice. Couldn’t you have an automated reply there, I asked Maria but she didn’t think it was imperative.

Trusting that Synaspismos’ publicity machine and press releases will sustain its image as an environmentally friendly party is missing the point of modern trends in politics. People more and more get their news from independent sources and in a world where the Political Message is all important one cannot afford to have the wrong thing circulating.

A quickly drafted text setting out the party’s main positions on the environment or this latest case would be easy to set up so that it is automatically sent out in response to these e-mails. Not thinking ahead to do this is simply lacking in responsiveness to new ways that citizens petition parties and come into contact with the political process.

Even more worrying is the fact that all those e-mails could have been printed out, counted and used in a Parliamentary submission or for an official Parliamentary Question. How much more impressive would that question be if the Member of Parliament could give exact numbers of concerned citizens? How many more people would look at Synaspismos in a more positive light if their press releases counted e-mails as well?

Synaspismos is not the scapegoat here and it admittedly has a track record of good environmental policies. What is lacks is responsiveness and understanding of the new ways of communication that citizens use. Sending an automated response to an e-mail with the party’s policies costs nothing. Seeing a headline on “party deletes voter opinions” will potentially cost a lot.

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