Social Media Politics? Experts Discuss Twitter and Facebook Strategies

American University communication major Colin Campbell attended a forum in Washington, DC this week assessing the use of social media strategies in politics.  In a guest post, he reports on some of the key conclusions.--Matthew Nisbet

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley is tweeting!  So is James Inhofe and Nancy Pelosi.  It’s a sign that social media has finally reached even the most senior of elected officials, but that doesn’t necessarily mean politicians, candidates, and their communications directors are using it correctly.

Ben Smith—of Politico fame—and a collection of other political/social media “tweeps” held a forum in Washington, DC on Monday night hosted by The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs to discuss how political campaigns are leveraging social media. The main take away from the evening? Simply having a Facebook page and Twitter account isn’t going to get you elected to that House seat you’re after.

While those Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and 4Square icons might make for pretty window dressing on a candidate’s website, understanding the audience and intricacies of each platform is far more important. The problem is that many candidates have yet to realize this.

Common Mistakes that Politicos Make

Mindy Finn an online consultant for the firm EngageDC and panelist stated that campaigns are spending less than 5% of their total budget on social media creation and strategy. While such a percent may have been sufficient in the era of dialup, it’s a far cry from what campaigns should be spending in today’s political environment of constantly connected constituents.

More upsetting for social media advocates than the minuscule fraction of the budget set aside for social media, is the complete lack of understanding candidates have on how to effectively connect with their base on these platforms. Finn explained that her biggest pet peeve is how her clients typically directly connect RSS feeds from their Facebook status to their Twitter accounts: “Twitter and Facebook are two completely different platforms with distinctive audiences. When candidates do things like that it just shows how little they understand about social media and their followers and friends are going to tune them out.”

Since not all members of Congress can be as adept at using social media as Chuck Grassley, Facebook has hired Adam Conner as a privacy and public-policy director for their D.C. division. Conner helps candidates avoid embarrassing social media situations by holding free weekly training sessions with members in both parties of Congress, instructing them on how to effectively connect with their constituents through social media.

A Majority of Congress Now Have Twitter Accounts

The 2010 election cycle has seen the dawn of social media strategy in political campaigns. Ever since Obama made it cool to text blast his vice presidential selection and share what he was having for breakfast with Facebook back in 2008, more and more candidates are creating Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and other social media accounts.

The political-twitter website “Tweetcongress,” which aggregates Twitter lists of Congressmen, finds that 252 members have verified twitter accounts. Who are all these members looking to for social media guidance? No, not to Obama (if you haven’t noticed his “cool” vibe has been waning lately) but rather, to social media demagogue Sarah Palin.

Between Palin’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, she has amassed more than 2.5 million followers (after President Obama, that is more than any other politician). What is most remarkable is not the sheer number of her followers, but the manner in which legacy media monitor these feeds.

Politico’s Ben Smith highlighted this at the forum on Monday night offering the idea that these social media sites are the new information subsidies for the mainstream press.  Which begs the question, are we headed toward a social media government where policy initiatives are going to be tweeted out in fewer than 140 characters? In the interest of democracy, I hope not... #onwardto2012 !

--Colin Campbell is an undergraduate in the School of Communication at American University.

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