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The Globe and Mail

Vancouver's mayor plays Twitter like a fiddle

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is seen outside City Hall in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday April 2, 2012.

Darryl Dyck for The Globe and Mail/darryl dyck The Globe and Mail

As far as public relations exercises go, this one was gold.

#GregorLive, a live Q&A session on Twitter with Vancouver's mayor that took place earlier this week, was intended to be a friendly, informal chat. Such is the nature of the character-limiting social media tool.

The forum was moderated by two of Vancouver's most active blogger/tweeters: @miss604 (Rebecca Bollwitt), whose website highlighting local events has earned her a sizeable following, and @VIAwesome (Bob Kronbauer), whose stated mission is to say positive things about the city. Both were invited by the mayor's staff.

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The Twitter session was billed by the mayor's office as an opportunity to "let people who aren't normally engaged in city politics weigh in on what they care about – it brings the current issues at City Hall to an entirely different audience."

But it's also a way for civic leaders to communicate with constituents safely – with the ability to pick and choose questions, and without the media weighing in and holding politicians accountable with little irritants such as context and fact-checks.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of Twitter. For a journalist, it satisfies the impulse to tell everyone (whether they want to hear it or not) something that someone else has just said. It also encourages reporters to be clever, and to be rewarded for their cleverness with the doggie-treat of a comment or a re-tweet, or the ultimate prize, a new follower.

For an elected official, answering a question in 140 characters or less can be a challenge. There's a lot to say. But it also means you're limited in how far off the rails you can go; and pausing and thinking before typing is far less awkward than dead air.

The Twitter session also places the politician among the cool people, and demonstrates that he or she probably understands the meaning of the word "zeitgeist."

Yes, there are occasional missteps, and there are those such as NDP MP Charlie Angus who went all Ashton Kutcher last week and quit Twitter, having had it with the unstoppable stream of anonymous vitriol.

For Mayor Gregor Robertson, though, this week it was all good.

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In the hours leading up to the monumental event, the promotional tweets began flowing, creating the sort of anticipation that comes with an orchestra tuning up, or the flutter of a stage curtain.

And minutes before it officially began, the tough questions streamed in: "How would you counter arguments that Vancouver is no longer a viable place to raise a family?" "Is Vancouver really a no fun city?" "Did you see the #globeandmail piece about arts groups leaving the city?" "Can you help the RIO theatre?" And some not-so-tough questions, for instance "How is your cat?"

But the mayor opted to answer a question from one of his host-tweeters first: @VIAwesome: "Gregor, which do you like better, playoff beard or a #Movember moustache?"

@MayorGregor says playoff beard! #gocanucks Then, ignoring those questions about arts funding, "no fun city," the Rio, and the average family's struggle with affordability, the mayor moved on to the cat. "My rescue cat 'Kitty' is doing great. Thanks for asking a great question."

Sarcasm? Maybe. It's hard to tell on Twitter.

For the next hour, Mr. Robertson fielded questions about food carts and bike share programs, affordability, building heights, liquor laws and whether he felt the depth provided by Zack Kassian and Marc-André Gragnani will be enough to help the Canucks in the postseason.

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On bike shares – yes, Vancouver will experiment with a pilot program during this summer's Velo-City conference. On affordability, "a national housing strategy would be a big help." The mayor says the city will continue to "push for updates to the many outdated liquor laws that need fixing." And while Mr. Robertson remained silent on the value of the two former Buffalo Sabres at playoff time, he did comment on the Canucks' goaltending: "Schneider is a keeper! #gocanucks"

Halfway through the exercise #GregorLive became the top trending topic in Vancouver, then made the leap to trending nationally. Mission accomplished.

There were some serious and pretty specific questions. For instance, "Why aren't sexually exploited women a higher priority in our city?" "Why was the director of emergency management let go last month?" "What was the full cost of the Cities Summit?" And "Why the increase in no-bid contracts in 2011?" Granted, some of these questions came from reporters, who were apparently unaware of the "light and celebratory" intent of the exercise.

These were questions that if asked in a media scrum, the mayor would have had to answer, or would have risked being seen evading them on the nightly news.

In the Twitterverse, those questions dissolve into vapour. So what was billed as meaningful public engagement really feels more like public relations.

At the end of the hour the mayor came off as a regular guy, with his Canucks jersey and his rescue cat.

Oh, and #gocanucks.

Stephen Quinn ( @cbcstephenquinn) is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 in Vancouver.

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