Inside a campaign war room on a recent primary election night a young press operative announced in a town crier’s voice: “This is blowing up on Twitter right now.”
I actually wasn’t really there, but I’m willing to bet anything that it was a scene played out in many, if not all, of the campaign headquarters staffed with bright young flacks this cycle.
How can I be so certain? There have been countless times over the last couple of years when an email pops up on my phone from a campaign communications operative imploring me that immediate action must be taken because of a tweet from a staffer on an opposing campaign.
Here’s just one example: a snarky tweet from our opponent’s communications director ended up being retweeted a dozen times (I assume entirely by his friends and family), and this suddenly constituted a communications crisis for our campaign. It wasn’t. Not even close.
Nothing has done more to ruin young press operatives than Twitter. The basic blocking and tackling of press has been lost to the instantaneous food fight of the social media site famous for its 140-character delivery.
Snark, substance-less witticisms, and gotcha moments on social media have replaced the hard spade work of pitching stories, developing relationships with reporters, and the basics of an efficient press operation.
Social media has become the hot commodity for campaigns and like the snake oil salesman of the past, people are saying it will cure every political ill. But in the rush to rightfully develop a strong social media presence, too many young campaign operatives have lost sight of what actually moves persuadable voters.
Here’s some hard, foul tasting medicine: As all encompassing as Twitter seems in the Beltway Bubble, many voters, especially older voters who are your most reliable voting demographic, don’t use it. Some have no idea what Twitter is. And those who do are probably tweeting about the score of the latest baseball game, not the negative attack ad on TV.
Young operatives have come up in a world where everyone is on Twitter and everyone uses their Facebook accounts. In their world, much of public life is transacted online. The reality of life for most voters is far different. They’re reading news stories, in many cases online, but still a good portion in print.
They’re also listening to talk radio and watching live broadcast television. A good hit in any of these mediums is far more likely to move voters than a tweet.
Campaign communication plans need to be balanced with both traditional and new media, which means we need operatives who are balanced, and most importantly, know how to filter out the noise. As operatives we have to remember that Twitter is not a representative sample. One or two Twitter loudmouths can make minor issues seem tremendously important when they are, in fact, completely irrelevant.
If Twitter is your only news source, which too often it is for many political reporters, some random malfeasance would appear to have seismic repercussions when survey research would show 80 percent of voters are unaware of the issue at all.
Take, for example, the recent Texas attorney general primary. The conventional wisdom was that Ken Paxton would lose, and in large part because of a scandal involving a fine for improper disclosure. Social media was a constant and perpetual drum beat of anti-Paxton talking points.
But the truth is without the proper earned and paid media volume behind that message offline, it failed to penetrate the electorate and cause any real damage. The result wasn’t even close. Paxton won with two-thirds of the vote.
It isn’t all the fault of young press operatives, either. Reporters have an over-reliance on Twitter, which creates a feedback loop. Press teams get excited when they get a reporter to send a favorable tweet, or even better, a sarcastic tweet about their opponent. But they forget how few people that reaches versus the many times more a good article in print, or an ad on the evening news, would reach.
This problem is particularly acute in Washington, D.C. Far too often, operatives are lured into snarky back-and-forth Twitter duels that seem all-important and exciting, but fail the most basic test of campaigns. How does this get me votes? If it doesn’t get you votes, it doesn’t matter. All the ego stroking in the world doesn’t help us do our jobs better.
Moreover, these Twitter battles are often counterproductive, if not destructive. Campaign operatives represent the candidate, not themselves. In an effort to one-up their opponents on Twitter or score a viral tweet, they often step over the line, creating the worst possible result: a bad press story for their candidate. The world of instant gratification on Twitter runs counter to the number one goal of campaign messaging: discipline.
Now, this isn’t to say that social media sites like Twitter are useless to campaigns. They can be great ways to communicate with supporters, opinion makers, and drive action, but social media alone, or even primarily, does not move popular opinion or shape the discussion the way a print story in the major local daily does.
We need talented press operatives who know how to execute the full range of communication strategies. Going viral on Twitter does not a communications strategy make.
So how should campaigns balance the relatively new dimension of social media with the basics of press handling? The focus should be on developing a core message and then using all of the campaign’s tools to spread that message. Twitter can be a tool to spread a great press hit around, rally supporters, or get some quick donations, but all of this activity must fit within the campaign’s larger press strategy.
Twitter is ever present with shiny baubles that could be chased, but the campaigns that stay disciplined in using it as one of many tools as opposed to the only tool will be the ones that are successful.
My plea to operatives out there everywhere is to close TweetDeck and open their phones. The noise of social media could drown out what real reporters, voters, and supporters are saying. Don’t let that happen.
And the next time you are ready to send a tweet, ask a simple question: How does this get me votes?
Mark Harris is a co-founder and partner at Cold Spark Media.