How Government Leaders Can Stay Out of Social Media Hell

It's all too easy for a public official to make the kind of online mistake that results in ridicule and embarrassment. But it's not that hard to avoid a catastrophe.
by | January 14, 2014

The world of politics and social media changed forever when Anthony Weiner tweeted a picture of his boxer-covered genitalia to the world. The subsequent scandal ended the New York City congressman's career, but it also brought a new awareness to the intersection of politics and social media. Weiner, of course, is not the only politician to end up on the wrong end of a social media catastrophe. The list is a long one, including:

• Washington State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbons, who tweeted that Arizona was a "desert racist wasteland" after his beloved Seattle Seahawks lost to the Arizona Cardinals.

• Arizona State Sen. Al Melvin, who tweeted quotes he attributed to President Lincoln, only to learn that they actually came from a 20th-century Presbyterian minister.

• Congressman Peter Hoekstra, who live-tweeted a secret trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, triggering a public dispute over whether such actions raise security issues for those making such a trip.

Social media obviously has tremendous potential for government officials. We use it to connect with our constituents, answer questions and stay in touch with our communities. After all, more than 40 percent of Americans use Facebook every day, and more than 50 million are on Twitter. Thus, the question becomes this: How can government officials protect themselves from a social media meltdown? The answers are really pretty simple:

Training, training, training. Make sure everyone knows what they are doing. This includes how to use the actual social media platform, appropriate terminology and what each button means. Don't underestimate the importance of this; Jack Dromey, a member of the British Parliament, recently found himself in hot water when he tried to block a tweet containing gay pornography but favorited it instead.

Have a no-no list of topics that you should never discuss on social media. Some of these items will be the same for all officials: anything that is racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise derogatory. The second list is specific to each elected official. You'd never want to see Anthony Weiner tweet about the sacred vow of marriage, Joe Fitzgibbons on the importance of good sportsmanship or Al Melvin on the need for accurate quote attributions. This list can be particularly useful when it is a staffer rather than the official who is actually doing the posting.

Don't mix personal and professional. Programs such as HootSuite and TweetDeck are godsends to social media managers: they enable users to schedule tweets in advance, monitor conversations and send updates to multiple accounts. However, this last item has gotten many a manager in trouble. Users frequently customize the program to have personal and professional accounts in the same place. This makes it far, far too easy to make a career-ending mistake. Such was the case for a staffer for former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, who tweeted "U love torturing me w this *hit" from Dodd's official account.

Double-check everything. Take that extra 10 seconds to make sure that you have no typos (as was the case when Dan Pfeiffer, a senior aide to President Obama, accidentally tweeted the N-word instead of "bigger"). Make sure your grammar is correct (unlike the White House, which sent a tweet urging young people to get health coverage for their mothers' "piece of mind"). And confirm that links you are tweeting direct people to the site you are trying to send them to (such was the error of Sarah Pompei, communications director to California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who tried to send out a link to an endorsement and instead sent users to a YouTube video featuring a cross-dressing Korean bassist).

The world of social media is still very new and rapidly evolving. As such, there is a healthy fear about its use. However, at its core, it's a tool that can be used for good or for bad. And you would never use any other kind of tool without first learning how to use it. So learn -- and then jump in.

This column has been updated to clarify that there is disagreement over whether Congressman Peter Hoekstra's live-tweeting of a secret trip to Iraq and Afghanistan endangered those on the trip.

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Mike Schlossberg

Mike Schlossberg is a Democratic Pennsylvania state representative from Allentown and a social-media consultant.

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