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Harnessing the Power of Twitter for Politics…Without Getting Burned

With 100 million active users, more than 10 times the number of active users during the 2008 election, Twitter has become a powerhouse for information dissemination.   It is a powerful medium to relay information and to get supporters to do the same.  But what makes Twitter so powerful also makes it risky.

Twitter’s Amplification Power

It’s easy to find examples of ill-timed or accidentally published tweets that end up getting picked up by the press, with varying degrees of severity.  From Anthony Weiner’s career-shattering failure to send a direct message, to an employee who posted to the Secret Service account rather than a personal one, sometimes incidents like these end disastrously, and sometimes they don’t go anywhere.  But a gaffe doesn’t have to occur on Twitter for it to go viral on Twitter.

For example, in a February 1st interview on CNN, Mitt Romeny told anchor Soledad O’Brien, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there.”  Though Romney went on to say that he was focused on the middle class, his comments were on Twitter within seconds, making the rounds among journalists, other politicians and political junkies.  Within the hour Romeny’s team had reached out in an attempt to stem the tide of negative press.

Twitter presents a unique opportunity to address an issue and try to bring the messaging around to your terms, even if the issue occurs outside of the platform.

Losing Control

The Obama re-election campaign recently announced it will be organizing a “truth team” comprised of supporters.  The goal is to have truth team members combat anti-Obama messages and share Obama’s accomplishments around the web.

Mobilizing grassroots supporters to spread the campaign’s messages is one powerful strategy to amplify reach.  However it’s not without its risks. You can makes suggestions, but ultimately cannot control the messaging used by your evangelists.  The Obama campaign is well aware of both sides of the Twitter coin.  Campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt told the New York Times that with twitter, “[y]ou catch problems earlier, but things haven’t gone through a filter, so you’re almost playing Whac-a-Mole to shoot things down.”

Social media is an incredibly powerful way for an impassioned group to mobilize, but this may not always work in your favor.  Just ask the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

When the breast cancer research organization announced its decision to cease providing funds to Planned Parenthood, protestors flocked to Twitter and Facebook to voice their outrage.  Komen remained silent for forty-eight hours.  That silence was their fatal mistake.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Planned Parenthood’s marketing team took to Twitter and capitalized on Komen’s PR lapse.  They purchased promoted tweets to appear in relevant search queries.  Here’s one of Planned Parenthood’s promoted tweets: “Please RT: Women’s lives can’t afford to be caught up in political battles. Add your name if you #standwithPP: http://bit.ly/wjkV0F #komen”

Planned Parenthood raised $400,000 from over 6,000 online donors within 24 hours of Komen’s announcement.  As of February 4th, Planned Parenthood had raised $3 million.

When using Twitter to amplify your messaging, make sure to remember that you cede control.  The Obama campaign knows it, but believes the potential reward outweighs the risk.  Take a lesson from the Romney campaign and from Planned Parenthood.  When reacting to a Twitter crisis, act and act fast.  Whatever you do, do not remain silent.  That’s one strategy guaranteed to fail.

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2 Comments

  • I like your position. I do wonder and worry about the rather linear nature of Twitter and other social media platforms. What do I mean? I sometimes get the feeling that you have millions of people standing next to one another, on the side of a cliff, shouting to the HIGHEST about causes or matters that have deep meaning to them…and potentially to others. However, since we are ALL shouting at the same time, we can’t hear what the other is saying.

    • You make a great point, Stephen. The thing that’s unique about Twitter is that it’s not quite as linear as traditional communications channels like television or print advertising. You can actually respond directly to the people via this medium, as they are already there, expressing their concerns. That said, I think it is often the case that people do not take advantage of the opportunity to go back and forth and engage in meaningful dialogue. More often than not, people just end up shouting at one another just like you’ve said.