Why Don’t Politicians Get Social Media

Face it – not Facebook it – politicians do not get social media via the Internet. And it could be a very powerful communications tool if they did.

I love politics, and I love or loath politicians, depending on their policies and behavior. So this is not an anti-politician diatribe. The good ones do the very hard task of governing a very ornery populace. It is not easy. The good one are statespersons.

So why don’t they make it easier on themselves by learning to effectively use social media via the Internet? Beyond me. But admittedly I only subscribe to about five politicians, so my sample size is very small.

The core problem is that they seem committed to a broadcast model. They are used to TV, radio, and newspapers. They speak so people can listen. The bigger the audience, the more times they are “on” — the better for them and their message.

But that model is the antithesis of social media on the Net. Social media is interaction. And there is nothing a voter wants more than to have his representative, or candidate, hear his or her views. Candidates need to use social media on the Net to listen and respond to voters.

Now to be honest, there are several problems with listening and interacting, as opposed to the broadcast model. And some of them cannot be said politely. First of all there is the stupid factor. But stupid people do vote. So they must be treated with grace and charm, but also honest policy explanations. Remember, your electronic communications are creating what could be a permanent record.

And then there is the adversary attack problem, if you’re using something like Facebook. Once you accept someone as a friend, and you want as many as you can get, then your entire network can see what they say. So a competing campaign could have some operatives play nice to get accepted as a friend. Then they could slowly start challenging your policies. Then they could flame you – if you’re a guy – for being caught in bed with a dead women or a live boy. Or as Bush supporters did to McCain in 2000 in South Carolina, for having an illegitimate black baby. Among GOP voter in South Carolina, that doesn’t go over well. Totally bogas, but it worked.

So an interactive model must be monitored constantly. That requires a dedicated staffer or a VERY devoted volunteer, or a cadre of volunteers. At the city/county council level, that might require a spouse or very close friend.

All this implies the third problem with the interactive model. It takes a lot of work and finesse. That is probably why it is not used.

The fringe folks have to be treated well, but honestly. The attackers have to be quickly cut off from posting to the group. And the very serious posters need access to the candidate, or at least, to a senior policy adviser. It is responses to serious posters that can make the candidate shine. And I believe make the candidate want to do this. It is like getting an intelligent question at a town hall meeting and thinking your audience actually gets the nuance of your answer. I would think that is a very nice feeling in the midst of a very long day. You can look up Churchill on dealing with “the average voter”. Not pretty.

So politicians, stop using social media to broadcast your message. Use it to interact with likely voters. Use staff or volunteers to take care of the bulk of the traffic, but make sure they have the etiquette down cold. And then leverage your responses to thoughtful questioners. You will look engaged and thoughtful, and everyone else will think they have been heard.

So far the best politician I’ve seen using social media is Jeff Morris, State Representative from the 40th District in Washington. But he still leans towards a broadcast model. Terry Bornemann (Bellingham City Council) is active on Facebook, as is Representative Rick Larson (D-2nd – Washington), but they are even more of a broadcast model than Jeff, which is a mistake.

I will tell the story again, and it has been many years since it happened. I emailed Rick Larson at his US House office address on a Saturday. I soon got a response back that was signed Rick Larson. I responded that I know how Congressional offices work and you don’t need to pretend to be the Congressman — just pass along the message. I got a very fast response back saying something like, No this really is Rick. I was working in the office over the weekend. I don’t even remember what the email was about. But I do remember the exchange. And he will always have my vote.

And one further comment, don’t let staffer or volunteers pretend to be the candidate or office holder. If for no other reason than you can disavow what they say if they make a misstatement. But the main reason is to be honest with constituents and voters. if it is you say it is you.Otherwise give the person — staffer or volunteer — a very impressive title, like Director of Social Media Communication. And make sure they communicate that they are passing along messages to the office holder or candidate.