How to Control the Narrative: Leveraging Social Media to Address Public Issues

Social media have become a force in public issues, but many legislators are behind the times when it comes to using communications channels such as Twitter and Facebook. This hands-on workshop allowed Forum participants to create Twitter accounts and practice using social media channels for public policy dialogues.

As a Co-founder of Quorum, Alex Wirth is well-positioned to offer guidance on the use of social media for public discourse. Quorum is an online platform that tracks legislation and dialogue in Washington, DC and all 50 States. Designed to empower state legislative affairs teams with advanced analytics, powerful tracking, and robust management tools, the firm allows users to access and visually monitor the most comprehensive database of State legislative bills, committee votes, tweets on Twitter, and Facebook posts.

Mr. Wirth told the Forum that, of the 7,400 State legislators serving the 50 states, only 37% are responsible for the majority of social-media posts. Altogether, State legislators send 2.1 Twitter tweets per minute and 2.66 Facebook posts per second. He provided an analysis of the “most followed” Twitter handles among members of State legislatures. The number of “Followers” tracking State legislators’ tweets ranged from the single digits (Wyoming) to more than 100 (New York). There was also a separation on party lines with Democrats driving more engagement on Twitter, while Republicans drive more engagement on Facebook.

 State Legislators and Social Media Usage

 

“Social media are the best ways to share information,” Mr. Wirth advised, “because online “Shares” or retweets distribute your message to wide networks of people you would not be able to contact any other way.” He advised the Forum that state-related matters should be confined to the official legislative pages on Facebook and not included in personal pages. He noted that State legislators can request to be “verified,” which deters impersonation, but warned that impersonation is possible on FaceBook. The platforms are highlighting key influencers based on the traffic you create, he said.

Top Six Reasons for State Leaders to Be Online

1. To Keep in Touch with Family and Friends

2. Contact Management

3. In-the-Moment News Access

4. Share Activities and Accomplishments

5. Shape the Conversation

6. Provide Constituent Services

Mr. Wirth demonstrated the pros and cons of the top 5 platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, and Instagram, and how well each platform functions to meet the 6 objectives. Platforms also are evolving, Mr. Wirth noted, and, while text and photos are still dominant, more dynamic posts increase the numbers of shares and views. Facebook and Snapchat now support live video that allows users to experience the virtual reality of “being there” live and in real time.

1. To Keep in Touch with Family and Friends

Our dynamic, mobile society makes it a challenge to stay in touch with family and friends, and today, most people have some online access and presence. A post is easier for people to respond to at their convenience rather than taking a call or responding to an email. Most of the platforms serve this purpose, with the exception of LinkedIn, with its more professional orientation, and Twitter, with its limited characters.

2. Contact Management

Mr. Wirth reminded the Forum that, in the days before online platforms, former President Bill Clinton kept notes of every person he met on index cards. Today’s technology makes it easier to find key contacts, look for new hires, or identify allies or opponents to legislation. Contact management is a powerful reason to be online. Snapchat and Instagram are not useful in this role, Mr. Wirth observed.

3. In the Moment News Access

Social media are also sources of up-to-the-minute news. Legislators can be apprised of what is happening in the community, such as emergency situations, as well as reactions to pending legislation. Live tweets from committee hearings can keep legislators informed instantaneously about when bills are up for discussion or are moving through committees. Facebook and Twitter are the key online sources for instant news.

4. Share Activities and Accomplishments

Social media posts can amplify the work that legislators are doing, showing where they are and what they are doing. Constituents can get to know their representatives through posts, improving name familiarity, photo recognition, and awareness of what you are doing for them. “That exposure can translate to: ‘I’ve seen a lot of tweets and posts from that representative. He/she is working hard for us, so I’ll vote for him/her,’” Mr. Wirth continued. With the exception of Twitter, all platforms have a role here.

5. Shape the Conversation

One of the challenges is communicating accurate information to the public. Traditional media channels are slow to get the word out and may be biased. Legislators can use social media to take control of the conversation on an issue by tweeting or retweeting to make a point. Mr. Wirth cited the example of a tweet that was posted after a shooting incident, which said prayers for peace were needed. Sen. Sandy Pappas (MN) retweeted this message, adding “and gun safety legislation is needed as well,” in support of a bill she favored. Twitter performs best as a platform to help legislators shape the conversation. Today, newspapers monitor social media conversations and pick them up for news feeds, Mr. Wirth said. So tweets can drive the conversation in the press. Another advantage of tweets, Mr. Wirth pointed out, is that they are short and are not overwhelming like emails can be.

6. Provide Constituent Services

In another example, Sen. Stan Rosenberg (MA) retweeted a message acknowledging Hunger Action Month and added a link to the Massachusetts Senate Bill on the issue. Mr. Wirth reminded the Forum of New Jersey’s Sen. Cory Booker’s tweets from atop a snowplow during a blizzard, as he responded to tweets from stranded residents who needed their streets plowed. He obtained their coordinates and sent plows to their locations. Twitter and Facebook can be used to keep constituents informed and engaged, whether by linking them to more substantial sites through a tweet or providing more content in a Facebook post.

Tips and Tricks for the Platforms

Facebook

Decide whether you want to have an Official page, a public page, and/or a private page. Keep private content off the official pages. Post photos with every post. Host Q&A sessions, and answer questions using comments. Set up lists to control who sees what and with whom your posts are shared.

Twitter

Only join publicly if you plan on tweeting. Retweet people. Hashtags get you more followers. Create lists for news sources. “Following” people makes them think and feel that you listen.

LinkedIn

Share updates frequently. Post blogs as all of your contacts will get notified. Accept everyone who asks to connect. If you have 500+ connections, your name pops up more often. Turn off profile updates on your profile.

Snapchat

Use a Snapchat icon to get people to follow you. Post with the understanding that what you post will be captured and saved. Use your Story liberally, as it is the only non-ephemeral part of your profile.

Instagram

This is a more limited platform. It is only possible to share links in the bio section. Photos are the focus, not text. Use filters to make images pop. It integrates with Facebook, so participants can look up friends.

Participatory Workshop

In an engaging participatory workshop,Mr. Wirth challenged the Forum to write posts responding to different legislative issues and events, such as introducing a new bill, dealing with a budget shortfall, or answering an influencer’s challenge. Using their smartphones and tablets, the attendees practiced their skills at shaping the conversation through tweets.

Discussion

Sen. John Cullerton (IL) raised the concern that using social media in campaigns can lead to negative reactions coming back to haunt candidates.

Mr. Wirth: I agree. It is essential to review and reconsider tweets or posts. “Scrub whatever you want to put online. Write your tweet and walk away for a while. We are living in a social media reality. Anything you put online will be transparent.” In some cases, employers require employees to disclose the passwords and user names for their social media accounts as a way of screening their content. This raises concerns about privacy, Mr. Wirth acknowledged, but the basic rule is that anything you put online is public.

When you transition from a private to a public role, your comments have different effects. You want to be authentic but in a very professional manner, he advised. He recommended that legislators have clear guidelines for staff on what they can communicate online, noting that some Senators review every post before it goes out.

Sen. David Givens (KY) argued that social media is a delivery mechanism and that knowledge of the content and messaging is what matters. He advocated that a talented and experienced person to shape the conversation was the key element in a social media campaign, not technical know-how. You can learn the social media platform, he said, but not the messaging.

George Cook (Toyota) commented that the next decade will see a new definition of privacy. “Social media platforms are an extension of your personal diary,” he noted. “In the past, we expected some level of privacy. But now there are new mores, folkways, and laws affecting privacy. We do not have legal parameters around privacy in social media.”

Sen. Sandy Pappas (MN) noted that it is dangerous to joke about anything in social media because an off-the-cuff comment can go viral. It’s important to comment thoughtfully and seriously, she emphasized in conclusion.

Senators Stan Rosenberg (MA), Sandy Pappas (MN), Tom Alexander (SC), Peter Courtney (OR) and Kenneth LaFleur (LA) continued a lively discussion after the Social Media presentation.

Speaker Biography

Alex Wirth

Alex is a cofounder of Quorum primarily responsible for business development and customer success. Alex interned in the Office of the Chief of Staff at the White House, in Senator Jeff Bingaman’s (D-NM) office, and was a U.S. Senate Page. Alex started the Campaign for a Presidential Youth Council where he conducted over 60 meetings on Capitol Hill. These meetings led to the introduction of three bipartisan resolutions supported by six U.S. Senators and eighteen Members of Congress. Alex was appointed by Secretary Clinton as the youngest member in history to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO. Alex has spoken at the United Nations, the Clinton Global Initiative, and the World Forum for Democracy. Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, Alex graduated from Harvard with a degree in Government and Economics.

Other Fall 2016 Forum Highlights articles:

Alex Wirth

Cofounder of Quorum Analytics

State legislators send 2.1 Twitter tweets per minute and 2.66 Facebook posts per second.

Constituents can get to know their representatives through posts, improving name familiarity, photo recognition, and awareness of what you are doing for them.

Legislators can use social media to take control of the conversation on an issue by tweeting or retweeting to make a point.

Twitter performs best as a platform to help legislators shape the conversation. Today, newspapers monitor social media conversations and pick them up for news feeds.

Sen. John Cullerton

“Scrub whatever you want to put online. Write your tweet and walk away for a while. We are living in a social media reality. Anything you put online will be transparent.”

Sen. David Givens

Sen. Sandy Pappas

Alex Wirth

Cofounder of Quorum Analytics

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