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Nelson urges caution on Facebook, Twitter

Paul Smith (via AFR) | April 23, 2013
Australian War Memorial director and former Liberal leader Brendan Nelson believes technology is wonderful if it helps people add value to their personal and working lives – such as enabling far-flung communities to connect virtually with Anzac Day. But too often, he says, technology rules us.

The older ways of communicating via letter rather than email or tweet seemed to Nelson to produce more effective results. "When I was first elected to Parliament in 1996, people emailing my electoral office was far less common that people sending letters, but the balance had changed significantly when I retired from the Parliament in late 2009," he says.

"I was steadfastly of the view that electronic communication mustn't take precedence. I would say to my staff, 'Why should a person that sends me an email get a priority over an elderly ­person who writes a letter?' "

Nelson says the trend increased where he would receive his angriest correspondence from constituents electronically and often late at night.

His response was to wait a day or so and then call the person on the phone, rather than getting into a fight with a keyboard warrior.

"It was not uncommon for me to ring one of my constituents and have a very sheepish person, usually a man, on the other end of the phone, who would be apologetic and admit they had drunk a bottle of red or had a row with their wife before sending a message off.

"My view on email, and certainly something like Twitter, is the same as the advice given to me early on by one of my mentors, Dr Bruce Sheppard. He always said to never write a letter when you are angry, and if you do, stick it in your bottom drawer for a couple of days before you send it."

While Nelson has created a Twitter account to communicate about the Australian War Memorial, he is dubious about the value being added to the quality of debate by tweeting politicians. He recalls watching bemusedly as a senior cabinet minister sat ­"tweeting about trivia" in the midst of serious and important discussions.

Nelson also says the benefits of being connected 24/7 to mobile devices needs to be offset against the need to remember basic manners and common courtesy in public meetings.

"In an overall sense we have to remember that these technologies, whether it is our desktop, laptop, iPhone or social media fora, are tools to be used, whereas too many people have these tools using them," he says.

"I had to admonish one of my staffers once for using his BlackBerry under the table at a boardroom lunch . . . I told him that never again, so long as he worked with me, could he do that. People you are speaking to need to know that they have your undivided attention. If you really have to check in, then excuse yourself and leave the room. It is just basic good manners."


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