Politicians must learn how to use social media

For elected officials, social media can't entirely replace meetings, phone conversations, and news releases, but it does unleash a new digital intimacy that previously didn't exist between elected officials and their constituents.

For elected officials, social media can't entirely replace meetings, phone conversations, and news releases, but it does unleash a new digital intimacy that previously didn't exist between elected officials and their constituents. As with any technological advance, though, risks must be considered just as carefully as the benefits.

First, is the issue of transparency. Social media is helping to open communication between government and the public in ways never imagined. However, as citizens become accustomed to accessing more types of communication records, social network archives will be a logical expectation, according to Govtech.com. What's more, now that Twitter has said it will donate its archive of public messages to the Library of Congress, it's safe to assume any message that might have been thought to be private really isn't.

More immediate, however, is the concern of making a mistake in communicating through social media. For public officials, tweet an overly harsh response to a critic and watch it get retweeted far and wide

So, before diving in, elected officials must spend some time learning the medium. They need to understand that social media doesn't replace all other forms of communication. Just like a mayor wouldn't spend an entire day solely on the phone talking with constituents, it should be the same with social media.    

It is also important to think before typing. Earlier this year, without contemplating his actions, a congressman tweeted his location in Baghdad's Green Zone, putting his convoy at some risk and causing himself a fair amount of embarrassing media attention. 

Not every criticism merits an immediate response. Sometimes picking up the phone to talk or scheduling a meeting is the better way to respond then being goaded into an extensive digital engagement for all to read.

Still, public officials must use social media. Perhaps worse than taking on a critic for too long is not engaging at all. Just as availability is scheduled for meetings and phone calls, time must be set aside for social media. What's worth writing about?  More important, what isn't?

And just like other communications tools, officials will make mistakes using social media - mistakes that can be amplified and sent to thousands of constituents.

That's why when error is made, elected officials must know how to fix it. It's a three-step approach: apologize; clarify; and move on.

The worst thing an official can do is dig in. It's important to know when to concede the point, clarify - once - what was meant and then move on to other matters. Critics are unlikely to accept the apology, but most of the public will respect the regrets and let the official off the hook.

Social media makes for more transparency and intimacy. For the most part, that's good. But government leaders must learn how to use Facebook and Twitter. They should also know how to minimize the problems that will occur when mistakes are inevitably made.

Bob Sommer is president of Rock Entertainment Management and an adjunct professor at the Bloustein School of Public Policy at Rutgers University.  He is a former partner at MWW Group.

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