How Politicians Should Use Twitter

For you and I, Twitter is a place where we can share our rants and raves, communicate with friends and strangers, and know more about the lives of others. It’s personal and it’s interactive – and it’s that recipe that makes it worthy of our time. But for many politicians, including those who are (or were) vying for the 2012 presidency, Twitter is mostly just a bulletin board where a campaign staffer can push political agendas and remind people (again and again) to get out to vote.

While this kind of account is a notch above not having one, using Twitter like this is 1) a bit misleading, since @JoePolitician isn’t the one actually tweeting, and 2) a squandering of perhaps the most important aspect of the platform: that you can showcase personality and interact with people who have an interest in you. The Twitter accounts of politicians abide by the “better safe than sorry” philosophy in a likely strategy to avoid a media blowup (or, as the media would refer to it, a field day). But it’s a waste of a huge opportunity. Personal tweets coming from the real candidate to her real followers have a much more lasting impact and create a connection that a “Candidate Joe the Politician will be in Arkansas tomorrow” tweet cannot. Politicians need to go beyond having a Twitter account because they know they need to have one; rather, they should take advantage of a captive audience craving something that better connects the politician to the citizen. Let’s look at three issues many political Twitter accounts face that need to be rectified:

Organization or Individual?

The Twitter accounts of many politicians can be a seemingly haphazard mix of agenda-pushing links to articles, the time of their next TV interview, and, occasionally, an authentic (or at least authentic-sounding) tweet from the politician themselves. The discordance of these tweets, however, is misleading to followers. Is @JoePolitician tweeting as an organization, a news site, or as Joe? It’s Joe’s name on the handle, giving the perception that it’s the individual who is tweeting. It’s not @JoesCampaign, when, more often than not, that would be a more apt name for an account that is mostly (if not exclusively) relaying the corporate message direct from a staffer’s fingers. Political Twitter accounts need to be clear on who is doing the tweeting.

Where’s the Personality?

I challenge you to find a blander group of Twitter accounts than those of politicians. Twitter is a medium that exists, in part, to showcase individuality. But political Twitter accounts with personality are few and far between. Still, it just makes too much sense for politicians to take advantage of this – and yet they don’t. After all, what group of people – with a long-standing reputation as rigid, robotic, and boring – would benefit more from getting to speak to millions of people through a medium designed to give them an opportunity to let people see them in a more personal light? Twitter isn’t a presidential debate or a CNN interview; it’s a chance to tell your voters and potential voters that you were scraping gum off your shoe five minutes before a press briefing. Is that important to a candidate’s stance on issues? Nope. But it serves a purpose that’s arguably just as important to winning an election: it’s a chance to connect with real people, as a real person.

The Fear of Mistakes

As powerful as Twitter can be, it’s become almost daily news that someone famous will find themselves in hot water over an inflammatory 140 characters. High-profile politicians have, arguably, the most to lose from a personal tweet, with the over-eager media ready to fill a week’s worth of programming on an ill-advised tweet. It’s an understandable concern, but there’s no reason the process shouldn’t be anything other than zero risk. Why can’t a politician just run a tweet by her staffers, get clearance, and tweet away? Famous athletes and celebrities get in trouble because there’s often not a filter between them and their millions of followers. It’s fine to have the safeguard of a campaign team, but more tweets should come from the actual person running.

Politicians are, as far as I can tell, real, living people. Using social media (and Twitter in particular) to confirm that would help their cause in a meaningful way.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.