MPs, ethical email and social media surgeries

There’s been a kerfuffle today. An MP asked a campaigning group to remove his parliamentary email address from their system — and tried to remove his email address from other websites — because the deluge of automated email sent to him detracts from the important work responding to email from individual constituents.

He has subsequently been criticised for deliberately making it difficult for constituents to contact him. The MP says:

“One of the things I found as an MP, is that every lobby group puts you on their email distribution list – or an automated system that sends out cloned messages from members of the public who access it.”

As MPs’ parliamentary email addresses are in the public domain anyway, campaigning groups view targeting mass email at MPs fair and acceptable practice.

Now I’m not going to jump in on who or what’s right. I’ll leave that to others to chew over. What’s clear is MPs are deluged with email and other requests requiring some form of response.

Also, as those involved with a public sector website with published email addresses know, you receive a huge amount of dire, untargeted email with no hint of an unsubscribe option or email policy — event invites, PDF newsletters, press releases for new products that aren’t available online.

I’ve taken part in social media surgeries as a “surgeon” for a while now and do a little email marketing. After reading all the kerfuffle, two things occurred to me:

  1. At social media surgeries, I’ve demonstrated how to sign up with and start using tools to blog, share photos or converse online. How to manage email, and handle the rise in email notifications that social networking causes, is a skill in itself — and a topic I haven’t discussed with participants at a surgery yet.
  2. Retail sector businesses are excellent at both permission-based and segmented email. They have to be. If those businesses aren’t excellent, they’re in difficulty. These businesses recognise all the power is held by the recipient. If the recipient considers the sender a spammer, it is so. End of story.

Firstly, next time at I’m at a social media surgery, I’ll bear in mind the issue of handling larger volumes of email as a result of participation in social networks. I shouldn’t take this skill for granted.

For MPs, who can easily afford smartphones, there are plenty of options to streamline the inbox, particularly in dealing with blog comments, follow requests, tweets, prioritising email and so on.

In the case mentioned above, is there a disconnect in sharing knowledge and skills with MPs embracing social networking or heavier online activity? (This isn’t a criticism of work already ongoing work in this area, just an observation based on the case of the MP mentioned above who decided to resolve the problem in his own way.)

Secondly, MPs shouldn’t have to put up with spam even if legislation might expose them to email communication from organisations who don’t target or discriminate what they send.

Taking down a parliamentary email address isn’t going to resolve the problem. But organisations have a responsibility to email “ethically” — have something relevant to say and target this message to those who are interested and actively chose to receive email about it.