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Political reporting on Snapchat? Just don’t try to be too ‘cool’

Dino Sofos

Senior social media producer, BBC Politics

Unlikely as it sounds, BBC Politics has already tried its hand at reporting on Snapchat. Expect more 10-second, political storytelling on the Brexit road ahead, says Dino Sofos:

In the heady days of the EU referendum campaign, I found myself following Boris Johnson and his Vote Leave battle bus around the West Country. There were pit stops to wave EU-protected Cornish pasties in the air, pull pints and shove quickly melting ice creams into the hands of bemused onlookers - the Westminster circus, in all its glory.

I was there primarily as a radio producer but I’d already been experimenting with various social media platforms, including Snapchat. The potential of the video and picture messaging app - formerly often associated with ‘sexting’ - is developing all the time. It allows users to create ‘stories’ with a series of 10-second snaps employing either videos or pictures, using emojis, text and special effects filters.

Stories only stay up for 24 hours. As a company, however, Snapchat’s recent announcement that it’s moving its international headquarters to the UK - home of 10 million daily Snapchatters - is perhaps an indication that it’s here for the long haul.

Anyway, on that day last summer, the visual feast before me was just too good not to be turned into a Snapchat story. I had an array of brilliant characters - both politicians and members of the public - and BBC News already had a Snapchat account. I was ‘given the keys’ and I began my story. You can watch it here:

More Snapchat stories followed: on the road with the Remain campaign; behind the scenes at the BBC Great Debate (watch below) and at the Labour leadership election. 

Something odd happens when you film politicians on a mobile phone. They seem to let their guard down more than they would if it were a proper camera. I’ve still not figured out why. Maybe they just haven’t noticed me.

This would probably explain how I managed to snap Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn trying on their hi vis jackets in a portakabin, before their carefully-orchestrated photo opportunity:

We know that the largest demographic on Snapchat is the under-25s, so it offers a huge potential to reach this underserved audience. But do they really care? Wouldn’t they rather be seeing what Kylie Jenner is putting in her salad than finding out about Jeremy Corbyn’s thoughts on housing?

For a lot of young people, probably, yes. There’s only so much we can do about that. But if we get the tone right, make the stories entertaining and funny, as well as informative, there is a huge opportunity to deliver politics to a younger audience.

(For what it’s worth, my experience is that young people are very interested in politics and issues, they’re just turned off by politicians heckling each other across the green benches and long interviews on politics programmes.)

It’s true that not every political story will be suitable for Snapchat. Will Snapchat users care about an attempted backbench coup to oust John Bercow? I doubt it. But do they care about how Brexit might affect their right to travel? Definitely.

A month after the referendum I went to two areas in London, which voted completely differently in the referendum; Islington, 75% to remain and Barking, 62% to leave. This story was essentially a set of vox pops brought to life on Snapchat.

Rather than shoving a microphone into young people’s faces, we took their views as snaps. For some, I handed over the phone and they recorded their thoughts themselves, selfie-style. It didn’t faze them in the slightest.

That’s the great thing about Snapchat - most young people are totally comfortable with it and are able to use it better than any BBC producer can. For many, it’s their main method of communicating with their friends. Statistics show that on average, daily active users visit Snapchat more than 18 times a day.

So if we’re smart, and pitch our tone appropriately, then young people will stick with it. But we’ve got to be aware that we’re essentially invading their space. The reason young people like Snapchat is because their parents aren’t on it! Thirty percent say this is the main reason for using it. So if we go there and try to talk to them like a cool uncle - ‘hey kids, isn’t politics groovy…’ - we’re done for.

Unfortunately tone isn’t something you can teach in a BBC course. You either talk that way or you don’t; you either use Snapchat or you don’t. People can spot a phoney a mile off, which is why it’s important that we continue to employ young people from all kinds of backgrounds, who know how to communicate with their peers.

So what have we learned about what makes a good politics story on Snapchat?

Firstly, when you only have 10 seconds, every moment counts. You have to go straight to the point. When I’m out and about I try to give followers a real sense of what is going on and take them behind the scenes, giving them lots of colour, humour and different, sometimes controversial, views.

Attention spans are low, so keep things pacey and visually engaging - we’re not trying to condense a News At Ten package. I try to include as few politicians and adults as possible, but when I do, I usually try to show them doing something that you wouldn’t see them doing elsewhere.

And on the rare occasion that they address our followers directly, I insist that they talk in plain English. Westminster-babble is banned! Here’s Boris Johnson in the make-up artist’s chair behind the scenes at the BBC Great Debate:

If you’re in the right place, big breaking political stories are also prime territory for Snapchat. I caught David Cameron’s resignation in a series of snaps from Downing Street:

We’ve got some interesting plans for the BBC News Snapchat account. You’ll see more regular features and faces and - of course - more politics.

During the next year or so, we'll be attempting to explain and bring to life the various implications of a possible Brexit deal (or no deal) to our followers' lives. We’ll be trying as much as possible to get out of Westminster and even outside the UK to do this.

Unlike other media outlets, the BBC doesn’t pay to be on Snapchat Discover, so we rely on word of mouth and other ways to promote our account. As Snapchat content is only accessible within the app via mobile, you can’t share a post with your network as you would on Facebook. So for people to see our content, they need to be following us.

Even so we are making an impact and Snapchat regularly features our Snaps in their main stories. One snap of mine about what young Brits made of Donald Trump’s election had 6 million views. (That’s not a typo.)

At a time when attracting a younger audience to our content is such a priority, you can see why it’s important we’re on there, continuing to experiment and learn new tricks.

Add us on Snapchat to catch what comes next. 


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