May 20th, 2011

Hazel Butters

Kagame vs Birrell – Twitter Rewrites the Rules of Media Engagement. Again.

Kagame vs Birrell – Twitter Rewrites the Rules of Media Engagement. Again.

Twitter is a great place to go if you enjoy seeing powerful people having spats in public. Fans of Lord Sugar and Piers Morgan, for example, are often treated to the spectacle of these two eminences grises bickering and taunting each other over which of them has more followers.

It’s rare, though, to see a head of state get into a public scrap, especially one that’s conducted partly in text speak. But that’s exactly what happened last weekend when Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s controversial president, took to Twitter to address criticisms by British journalist Ian Birrell.

It started when Birrell fired off a tweet calling Kagame ‘despotic and deluded’ for claiming (in an interview with the Financial Times ) that foreign media, governments and aid organisations had no ‘moral right’ to judge him. To Birrell’s surprise, Kagame fired back in person. By the end of the 46-tweet skirmish, Kagame had been joined by his foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo, and as news of the spat spread, ordinary Twitterers weighed in too with their own questions and comments.

It was just one more confirmation that Twitter is laying waste to the traditional rules of media engagement. Normally, heads of state talk to the media through layers of briefing documents, message strategy workshops, tightly controlled interview schedules and an entourage of media managers. Unscheduled and unscripted public free-for-alls are somewhat frowned upon.

Kagame’s direct approach was considered so off-the-wall that the Guardian, TIME, BBC and many others thought it worth covering, even though the ‘interview’ itself was pretty unenlightening with regard to Kagame’s alleged mistreatment of Rwandan journalists and critics.

But as Rwandan information minister Protais Musoni told the BBC, there was actually nothing very unusual in Kagame’s behaviour; he regularly uses Twitter to engage with citizens. And it’s that, above all, that underlines how Twitter is changing the game. If journalists – both professional and citizen – can have direct access to a head of state, celebrity or CEO, where does that leave the role of PR?

It’s an important question and one that I’ll explore in our forthcoming Prompt Guide to Twitter for Communications Professionals. Register now for your free copy, and we’ll send it to you next week. In the meantime, do let me know what you think, either in the comments or by tweeting me at @PromptBoston or at @PromptLondon.

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