Twitter and Politics: It’s Risky, But Riskier to Ignore

Twitter presents a lot of risks and opportunities for political campaigns.

In terms of size, Facebook is much more massive than Twitter. Just 13-14% of the American population is on Twitter, while Facebook has a daily audience larger than the Super Bowl. Even though Twitter’s audience is decidedly smaller, ignore it at your own risk.

“Twitter is where everything is happening,” says Chris Talbot, founder and President of Talbot Digital. “During the 2012 presidential debates, the Romney and Obama campaigns were tweeting like mad and their surrogates were trying to win the spin war on Twitter. Nobody was posting on Facebook during the debate.”

Talbot was part of a panel about Twitter and other social media at a recent conference sponsored by Campaigns and Elections magazine in Las Vegas.

“Twitter is a place where you can be yourself and let the public to see the personal elements of you,” said Deborah Jamison, a digital strategist for Upstream Communications. “Studies show social media can help shape a person’s perception of a candidate as strongly as face to face interaction. If you’re a sports fan, your constituents are sports fans, too. You can connect with them that way.”

Twitter is a great place to comment on the issues of the day and what’s happening in pop culture. While there are lots of opportunities to connect with voters, there are risks, too.

“Not every debate of the moment is worth weighing into,” warned Bianca Prade, Vice President of SKDKnickerbocker’s public affairs practice. “There has to be a balance. If you wade into topics where you shouldn’t be, there could be a backlash.”

“If you’re not connected to the story, it’s best if you stay out of it,” echoes Talbot. He points to the current “deflategate” controversy in the NFL where the New England Patriots have been accused of illegally deflating footballs during the playoffs.

“If you’re running for mayor in Boston or Seattle, you can jump on ‘deflategate.’ If you’re not connected to it, you should stay away.”

Given its immediacy, twitter can often be a very high-risk medium. That can be magnified in politics.

“Some candidates are good at social media,” says Talbot. “But do you trust your candidates to have access to those accounts personally? 90% of the time the answer is a resounding ‘no’. But, for some people out there, it’s worth the risk.”

Jamison says you need to make sure your social media accounts have an authentic voice.

“If your candidate’s reputation is that of someone who is serious and a statesman, if you jump on the pop culture topic of the moment, you’re going to confuse your followers. You can look at the hashtags that are doing well and see if there are any issues that are important to you or your followers. That’s a good way to get involved in bigger conversations.”

Whatever you do on Twitter, Talbot warns you have to be hyper aware that you are taking a risk whenever and whatever you post. You have to consider where a conversation could go and if you’re comfortable where it might end up.

“There are conversations that start on Twitter that often blow up. You see it all the time with TV personalities. They start a back-and-forth online, then they start showing these conversations on their own TV shows. That usually looks really good for one side while the other ends up looking stupid.”

But what about other social media? Jamison says one out of every five pageviews in the U.S. is Facebook, so you need to be on those platforms with fresh content every day.

“When people look for you online, the first place they look for you is Facebook and Twitter,” she says. “You want to be found there.”

Talbot says you cannot underestimate the value of social media to the political universe.

“This is a free method of communication that helps you get content in front of people you care about,” he stresses. “If you could have an extra week of TV during a campaign, would you do it? Absolutely. You have to think about social media the same way.”

Prade says social media can’t be a one-size fits all type of strategy. You have to focus your efforts in a way that makes sense for the type of voters you’re looking to communicate with. For instance, if your district is primarily college-aged voters, you should absolutely have a presence on Instagram. Conversely, Facebook’s audience skews older.

“Instagram is so visual, I can’t wait to see how it will be used during the 2016 cycle,” she says.

Jamison echoes her excitement about Instagram and what it can do for campaigns.

“You can use it to build a behind the scenes narrative. It’s a really good way to tell your story. People are visual. The Republican National Committee is already using Instagram as a way to start their outreach to younger voters and those who will be voting for the first time in 2016.”

Talbot does not share that enthusiasm about Instagram. He says the platform is too insulated and doesn’t drive voters to take action. He thinks the social network platform to pay attention to for the next election is Pinterest.

“The demographics on Pinterest are amazing. It’s all moms. Pinterest is 75% female. That’s going to be a very interesting demographic and network to watch next year.”