Social media may have played a key role in the national 2008 elections, but it’s still emerging as a tool in state elections this cycle. Lobbyists and advocates have taken to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube like fish to water. And some lawmakers have, too, like Democrats Rick Glazier, Marcus Brandon, and Grier Martin, and Republicans David Lewis, Andrew Brock, and Thom Goolsby.
Twitter and Facebook offer convenient ways to interact in real time with constituents and supporters. But both also offer anonymity. Some consultants tweet both as themselves and one or more candidates. Some candidates tweet occasionally, but let their consultants handle it the rest of the time. When a politician puts out a message on social media, how do you know who’s actually sending that message? And does it matter?
Who tweets for whom?
It depends on the politician.
House Speaker Thom Tillis is a prolific social media user. Spokesman Jordan Shaw says he handles the @nchousespeaker account, but Tillis himself manages his Twitter account (@thomtillis) and his Facebook page, even posting to Facebook from the House dais during floor debate last summer.
Tillis seems especially comfortable on Facebook, posting everything from favorite songs and sports analysis to links to news stories he likes and occasional diatribes against those he doesn’t. His posts have occasionally made news, as when he recently compared the Charlotte Observer to “roadkill” after unflattering coverage.
But those instances have been rare, and Tillis's authentic social media presence has undoubtedly been a net benefit to him. “Even if we wanted someone else to handle his social media,” Shaw said, “he enjoys it too much to give up those conversations with his constituents.”
House Minority Leader Joe Hackney is much more restrained on social media, much as he is in real life. But cautious doesn’t mean avoidant. According to spokesman Bill Holmes, “Rep. Hackney handles his own accounts and posts his own updates. Sometimes he will ask someone on the political side to post links to articles about him or statements that he makes. He is also the one who responds to questions.”
Others adopt a more arms-length approach.
Governor Bev Perdue has released some key statements via YouTube over the past couple of years, and her office even hired a Director of New Media, Ben Niolet, who answered in – of course – 140 characters: “@wral, @ncgovoffice actively monitors social media. Tweets and FB posts are prepared & posted by the comms staff in consultation w/ the Gov.”
Perdue’s campaign operation, separate from the state-funded governor’s office, was a little more detailed. “The Perdue campaign will have a strong social media presence,” said campaign chief Fiona Conroy. “Campaign staff will use Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets to keep voters and supporters informed about the Governor Perdue’s accomplishments, positions and actions, as well as opportunities for them to get involved in the campaign.
The governor’s likely opponent, Republican Pat McCrory, also has a strong social media presence, releasing a series of videos on YouTube last fall, hinting at his plans for 2012. When it comes to Facebook and Twitter, spokesman Brian Nick says, “Typically Pat will send an email or call instructions on the phone in terms of social media. For example, when he was standing in line at the DMV, he was repeatedly emailing messages that were then posted on Facebook and Twitter.”
Does authorship matter?
As races get smaller and money gets tighter, politicians are more likely to speak for themselves. Former House Democratic candidate Debra McHenry was offended that her authorship of her tweets would even be called into question. “It’s another way to get out information or to make statements that you think are important,” McHenry said.
“In today’s world, a lot of people – that’s how they get their information and their stories. That’s how they communicate,” McHenry said. “I like to use all the media I can to try to advance the causes that I think are important.”
But more and more candidates, even in small races, are turning to consultants to manage their presence in a medium that often seems like alien territory.
Jessica Wood runs Majority Connections, a GOP media consulting firm she founded as a recent NC State graduate. She handles media messaging for multiple candidates.
“I work directly with candidates that a lot of times aren’t going to be the ones that are going to be the first to embrace new media,” Wood said. She encourages her clients to look at new media as one more channel in the big media pipeline. “It’s about finding the right way to engage different voters and supporters - - email, video, texting, tweets, all of it.”
Wood says she tailors political messaging to supporters and voters. “Where are they, and what kind of information are they’re going to respond to? If we’re sending out a press release, that’s a formal communication,” she said. “That’s completely different from ‘Hey, I’m at Starbucks - please stop by and ask a question if you have one.’”
But, Wood stresses, social media is at heart a two-way medium, and candidates (or their consultants) have to treat it as one.
“I think of Facebook and Twitter as a way our supporters can interact directly with the campaign,” Wood said. “If a supporter wants a yard sign, a lot of them aren’t going to call – they’re going to write that on Facebook. And if we don’t answer that, then it’s the same thing as us not calling them back.”
Does it matter who answers? “I think getting the content out there is more important than having the politician actually write the 140 characters,” Wood said. “But you can always tell when a candidate has some kind of hand in it. I think the most successful campaigns do both.”
And as for candidates who occasionally a little have too much to say?
Wood chuckles. “I tell them, if you do not want to see it in the N&O or on WRAL, don’t tweet it or put it on Facebook.“ Not even temporarily, she says: “I show them how easy it is to save a screenshot. A lot of them have no idea.”
Coming up tomorrow: Friend or Faux?