May 14, 2010

Who’s tweeting? Candidates differ on delegating social media tasks

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By Nick DiMarco
Nick@MarylandReporter.com

Politicians are increasingly using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to pass along views and opinions to voters with the click of mouse, but is it worth a busy candidate’s effort to sit and tweet all day?

Maryland office seekers differ on how directly candidates should be involved in their social networking promotions. Some aspiring lawmakers are limited by their financial shortcomings and are unable to hire social media gurus, while others say putting their own fingers to keys is the only way to ensure authenticity.

At the other end of the spectrum, big-name incumbents may need support staff who understand how to manage sites like Facebook and Twitter. But critics say voters want to hear directly from candidates, as opposed to technical aides.

“There is a difficult balance to strike between being human and genuine and also being professional and careful. If you are personal and genuine you run a greater risk of offending someone with something you said,” Del. Bill Frick, D-Montgomery, said. “But if all your communications in this media are antiseptic, self-serving communications it’s tediously boring and no one will want to have anything to do with it.”

Frick said he handles all of his own social media accounts personally. He said he struggles to strike the right balance, but still wouldn’t hire a someone else to express opinions for him.

“People want candidates to be sincere,” he said.

Former Gov. Bob Ehrlich has 22,000 people who “like” him on Facebook and more than 450 “followers” on Twitter. Likely opponent Gov. Martin O’Malley has 4,200 Facebook “friends” in one account and a little over 8,200 “likes” in another. The sitting governor also has more than 2,500 Twitter followers. Ehrlich’s campaign created  a “director of new media” position about a month ago, after the Republican frontrunner announced his candidacy.

“When I first ran for the House of Delegates, it was a message a week. When I first ran for governor, it was a message a day. Today it’s a message of the hour,” said Ehrlich. “It’s nice, obviously. Given the schedule and given everything you have to do it’s a luxury, but in a statewide campaign everybody should have one.”

Owen McEvoy manages all of Ehrlich’s new media interests, including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. The campaign’s communications director Henry Fawell compared McEvoy’s position to speech writing.

“If it’s done right and the staff understands the candidate’s thinking and views and language then the differences are minimal,” Fawell said. “Gubernatorial candidates have a lot to do and need staff to implement these strategies.”

According to Fawell, plans are in the works to feature a live “tweet” question and answer session, where the former governor will actively correspond with voters in 140-character paragraphs.

O’Malley’s camp also hired a new media director about a month ago, although according to campaign director Tom Russell, the focus is a collaborative effort. Staffers from different departments like outreach and fundraising are encouraged to generate ideas for the Twitter and Facebook accounts.

“It’s one of those things where if everyone contributes and new media becomes part of your campaign, it becomes successful. If you just turn it over to somebody [and say] ‘you’re the new media guy,’ then you don’t get as much out of it … it has to be something integrated into your whole campaign,” he said.

Bryan Shuy, a Republican activist and Sen. Nancy Jacobs’s chief of staff, says candidates must show themselves human when communicating with voters through social media tools.

“The value is good if they understand that it has got to be interactive. It can’t just be straight political. You have to have your family events, your business connections, talking about things that are important to you,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be political. You can talk about the Ravens’ new draft picks. Realize that people are people. They’re not as involved in politics, nor do they care that much.”

Candidates like Senate hopeful Del. Saqib Ali, D-Montgomery, share Shuy’s view. Ali is a self-proclaimed “early adopter” of these new technologies and has been integrating himself into the social media landscape since 2006.

“I think it has to be seen as authentic. If your viewers don’t see it as authentic, they’re not going to be interested,” he said. “If you can have a staffer who can impersonate you well and fake that, it might work, but I don’t think that’s what the voters want to see.”

Ali will face Sen. Nancy King in a Democratic primary for her seat.

Former delegate and Senate hopeful and Cheryl Kagan, another Montgomery County Democrat, says social media is the “whipped cream and cherry” to her campaign strategy. Kagan also posts messages herself.

“People have commented to me that they appreciate that what I post on Facebook is authentically written by me. Not by a campaign aide or a subcontractor,” she said.

Kagan is challenging 32-year incumbent Sen. Jennie Forehand, who according to staff members, is given some help with her new media activities.  Calls seeking comment from Forehand were not returned.