Elements of Political Communication: Digital media guidelines – Social media
Various forms of social media allow you and your organization to perform an extremely important task: communicate with constituents, other citizens, and elected leaders in a regular and back-and-forth fashion. When used correctly, these formats afford political organizations a plethora of opportunities to reach a wider audience, but digital media posts are not just shorter official releases; simply having an account on these sites and using them for blanketing simple press releases is not enough to appease your audience. By using these tools properly, you can distribute information efficiently and increase the number of impressions your message creates. Generally speaking, social media submissions and posts should still follow most of the general guidelines, but they should also attempt to engender audience participation. The information in this chapter is meant as a primer for those not familiar with using social media and websites from an organization's perspective.
Even though social media users can choose their own content streams, the average Twitter user, for example, considers only 41 percent of the tweets in their feed "worth reading". Therefore, social media updates should be as current and topical as possible. Users often react well to direct questions, objective information sharing, and links to new website content. Content considered "boring", such as when a user retweets his or her own tweets, is not viewed favorably. Users also react negatively when an account overuses hashtags or when a link is given out of context. Note that you cannot limit someone else's use of a hashtag, regardless of where it originates. Create new tags at your own risk, knowing that they could be misused by the other side. To enhance your organization's credibility, include an accurate biography at the top of your user profile or page and post about what you are familiar with.
Internet applications like Seesmic and TweetDeck allow you to post messages on various forms of social media simultaneously. This is referred to as "blanketing", and it is appropriate in some circumstances, but not in others. Twitter is more appropriate for short, informal, and irregular bursts of information. Facebook is more appropriate for regular releases of pertinent articles and posts. Fixing a mistake posted simultaneously across multiple mediums is an awkward and sometimes embarrassing chore. Staggering the release of the message throughout a 24- or 48-hour period gives your supporters a steady stream of content, rather than an inundation across multiple formats. Social media tools like Twitter function like a news source to many users, and regular releases indicate a sense of transparency to your audience. There is an overload level at which point followers may become frustrated with your quantity of output, but it is higher than what most would assume. Regularly analyze your list of followers to see the demographics of your audience. Cater your content to these followers, or adjust it to match the needs of your target audience.
Word economy is essential in traditional media, but it is even more so in digital formats. Tweets, for example, must contain fewer than 140 characters, including links. Writers addressing political subjects often claim they struggle to express their views while staying within these boundaries. Refusing to post because you cannot stay within them, however, is not acceptable. Choosing not to use a particular communication tool, especially when it is free, limits your audience. You may find yourself in a situation in which you cannot reasonably express the message unless you abbreviate certain words or phrases. After removing superfluous words, abbreviate common words and phrases. Since contractions are perfectly acceptable in both print and digital media, using them can help you stay under the 140 character limit for a tweet and eliminate some of the staleness that often pervades political messages. Before posting, have someone read it and ask if he or she understood its meaning.
People want to be interacted with, not lectured to; therefore, use these messages not as platforms for talking points but rather as stepping stones for conversation and action. Encourage your supporters to share your posts and information frequently, reply to comments and replies respectfully, thank people for their help individually, and answer questions directly. Though many national candidates and organizations do not respond directly to their followers using social media tools, users expect a back-and-forth exchange of ideas from local candidates and organizations. This kind of "reciprocal listening" will allow you to sample from your audience to learn about their needs and concerns, and refusing to do so will limit your audience. The more your followers share something using these tools, the more people will see it. Twitter provides your organization with many advantages, including the ability to informally contact supporters and ask questions of elected leaders. Between 7 and 9 percent of the population uses Twitter, but that small segment is considered influential because of its sharing habits.
No conversation about the effects of social media in the political realm is complete without at least mentioning a few of the drawbacks associated with these tools. Since these tools are constantly changing, so too are the people who use them. Therefore, there is little accurate and contemporary research about how effective their use can be, and there are no set style guidelines governing their use. Though the simplest and best way to expand your audience is to have your supporters share and participate, this is easier said than done. Most users on social networks like Twitter are passive followers, and getting them to amplify your message is a difficult task. This means that other members of your organization may be skeptical of their use, especially in local campaigns. Generally, the larger a particular campaign is, the longer it has to build a base of supporters. This means that more local campaigns, such as candidates for city-level positions or those supporting or opposing local ballot initiatives, have less time to build a base of supporters and followers, since they often start only a few months before voting begins. That said, there is nothing to indicate that you would have fewer supporters if you did not use digital media. Supporter activation and interest are conducive to attaining a larger audience. Additionally, candidates and campaigns often stop providing updates for their supporters once the election has passed. As a local candidate or organization, be prepared to maintain your digital presence after you win or lose an election.
- A: We’re in #TownX with @congressmanY for #congressmaYtownhall and we’ll be tweeting it live.
- B: We're in Town X for a Town Hall-style meeting with Congressman Y. You can read about it by going to example.com or you can follow us on Twitter. Our username is @example and we're using the hashtag #congressmanYtownhall.
- C: We’re in Town X for a Congressman Y Town Hall. Read about it on example.com or follow us, Twitter username @example. We’re using the hashtag #congressmanYtownhall.
- D: We r n #townx with @congressmany for #congressmanytownhall, n we b tweeting it live.
- A: We're going to #standup for #liberty, #freedom, and #justice. #bold #vote #America
- B: We're going to #standup for liberty, freedom, and justice.
- C: We're going to stand up for #liberty, #freedom, and #justice.
- D: We're going to #stand up for liberty, freedom, and justice.
- A: We’ll be at the festival between 7 and 8 p.m. tomorrow. If you’re going to be there, please let us know so we can plan ahead.
- B: We will be attending the festival between seven and eight in the evening tomorrow, so if you are interested in coming, please let us know via email or phone so that we can plan for your arrival.
- C: We’ll be at the festival between 7 and 8. Please let us know so we can plan ahead.
- D: Please let us know if you'll be at the festival tomorrow between 3 and 4 p.m. so we can plan ahead.
- André, Bernstein, and Luther, "Who Gives a Tweet?".
- Morris et al., "Tweeting is Believing?"
- Kwak et al., "What is Twitter".
- Qualman, Socialnomics, 77.
- Crawford, "Following You", 530.
- Standage, "Bulletins from the future".
- The Associated Press claims that their 2012 Stylebook will fill in some of these gaps. See Associated Press, "2012 AP Stylebook Adds Fashion".
- Romero, Galuba, Asur, and Huberman "Influence and Passivity", 18.