Commentary

Message Discipline And Social Media

In the last few weeks, Hillary Rodham Clinton chided (okay, trolled) Rand Paul and Chris Christie for hedging on the value of vaccinations while testing a #grandmothersknowbest persona. Jeb Bush’s chief technology officer resigned after failing to delete some crude tweets before they circulated. The owner of the New York Knicks, James Dolan, flamed back at a fan in an email exchange. And a cautionary tale in the New York Times Magazine traced the woes of non-famous people not engaged in zero-sum persona battles who nevertheless lost their jobs and emotional balance because of ill-thought tweets.

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These are all signs that the perennial campaign concern about message discipline has taken on stiffer dimensions in the age of social media. Their arrival marks a change in kind for the management of public comments. We see politics first today through social media; the speeches, white papers, news stories, and even television ads by which we have so long judged campaign and candidate quality are now secondary links.   

Social media can help outsiders gain attention from party elites and financial backers, both directly and through the press, who routinely weave screen shots of tweets and videos into news stories. Potential supporters connect in bulk to campaigns during live events, and campaigns reverse the polarity to get out the vote. Social media are especially important for candidates who personify their political parties or seek to separate their identities from such personifications, as was the case with several Democrats distancing themselves from Obama last fall.

Opportunities to enhance a campaign tempt social media overuse. Nothing is easier, after all, than to fill gaps in the schedule with tweets, emails, and talking to the pinhole camera. It seems like productive networking, a bias confirmed by noting any subsequent upticks in followers and contribution dollars on the analytic dashboards. But what’s the opportunity cost? What’s the ROI on social media activity where the I is time? 

Time management is where discipline comes into social media use, but message-triggered crisis avoidance is where it becomes critical. Social media message discipline means not being lulled into believing remarks will remain private just because they are composed in privacy. It means being conversational and epigrammatic without being casual. Formal language allows politicians to fudge and avoid offense.  But they can no longer presume an audience for such compositions. Instead, they must compete to engage web users.

Today’s leaders have no excuse for not being aware that social media are public places where speech, even when legally protected, can offend and alienate people across time, space, and context. Some blowback occurs organically; other problems explode as a result of media and opposition research teams, who inspect and catalog digital fingerprints in search of gaffes, hypocrisies, ironies, contradictions, and other construable outrages. (Thank you, Jon Stewart.) There’s leeway only to apologize plainly, — not in Brian Williams-speak — and, as appropriate, to compensate those harmed by the remarks. The damage control window stays open a matter of hours.   

Social media time sucks and mis-speak landmines are too much for one person to manage. So campaigns must now organize with the acute vulnerability of reputation to social media catcalls in the collective mind, while balancing that threat against the need for creativity and speed in responses and initiatives. It won’t work to have 22 people necessary to sign off on a tweet, as was the case in the late stages of the 2012 Romney campaign.  

Given the intimacy and constant availability of social media, “the body man” makes sense as the front line enforcer. That keeper of the smartphone must feel empowered to stop a comment before it is sent and refer it to the campaign chief of staff, so he or she can consider and consult with analytics, brand sentinels, and liaisons to communities that might take offense. Others authorized to communicate for the campaign must work under similar stop-and-go arrangements. The chief must not only set up the fast track checks but also broker any disputes along the loops, since discontented avengers no longer need to leak through the press, but can vent through social media as well. 

Political scientist and presidential campaign veteran Samuel Popkin wrote that while elections can seem to turn on voters’ personality preferences, “candidates only get as far as their team can take them.” Social media have made this a faster and steeper truth.

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