November 3, 2009
|Dennis Raj, special assistant to Jack O’Connell, state superintendent of public instruction, tweets during a California PTA meeting.|
PR professionals working in the public sector are encountering a fresh challenge: managing the Twitter activity of the elected government officials whom they represent.
Some politicians have successfully become masters of the Twitterverse (see sidebar), but others stumble. Recent high-profile Twitter gaffes prompted The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza to blog this past June, “Any medium that encourages instant reactions dashed off on a BlackBerry or iPhone and condensed into 140 characters is a recipe for disaster in the political arena.”
While the danger of a twittering blunder is real, there is no escaping the revolutionary shift in communications that is occurring: Social media is here to stay.
As professional communicators themselves, politicians understand this. They want — and need — to be part of creating, sharing and responding to Web 2.0 content.
How can PR professionals ease the Twitter learning curve? The following case study can help.
Superintendent O’Connell becomes @SSPIJack
For Deborah Kennedy, assistant communications director at the California Department of Education, and Dennis Raj, special assistant to Jack O’Connell, state superintendent of public instruction, their boss’ Twitter journey has progressed smoothly and addressed a real need.
Kennedy explained how the scope of California’s public school system — 6 million students and more than 10,000 schools — requires O’Connell to travel at least 70 percent of the time.
“On any given day, the superintendent can be in three different cities visiting schools, delivering speeches, meeting with education advocates,” she says. “Twitter allows quick updates for the media and others interested in education using a simple, real-time communications tool.”
Raj adds, “O’Connell is very interested in communicating with constituents. When he was in the state legislature, he used to hold office hours every Saturday in different parts of his district. That’s what Twitter is — online office hours.”
As a member of Generation Y, Raj spends more time texting friends than interacting in person. Since Raj travels with O’Connell, it was natural for him to become the Twitter assistant. Raj takes pictures of O’Connell on his iPhone at appearances and posts them to Twitter. He also carries a BlackBerry for typing O’Connell’s dictated tweets during mobile office hours.
They work quickly as a team. In one 20-minute period, O’Connell juggled Twitter conversations with me, a teachers’ union representative and a constituent asking about education grants. Having interviewed O’Connell before, I could tell that the tweets were written in the tone of his voice.
Top Twitter attributes
Here are three of O’Connell’s top Twitter attributes, illustrated with tweets from our Twitter interviews and his profile:
Transparency: O’Connell repeated my questions so that people who were following him would understand the context of his answers.
“I’m conducting my first Twitter interview with @leaguelearn. I will also retweet to the questions.”
Passion: He strikes a topical balance between the state’s educational challenges, progress and goals.
“I think Twitter, and social media in general, helps make the point that students of today and tomorrow absolutely need to be technologically proficient. We need an analytical, skilled work force that includes the use of technology.”
Humanity: O’Connell is likeable. When running for re-election to the state assembly, he won the Democratic and Republican primaries, garnering 92 percent of the vote. His Twitter handle, @SSPIJack, suggests approachability.
“I enjoy using Twitter because it is a great way to create two-way conversations with educators, parents and students.”
As any PR professional involved in social media knows, there is always a superior way to connect and build community. Raj explains that O’Connell will soon begin streaming live webcast office hours. Participants will submit real-time questions and comments via Twitter, a Web site forum or YouTube.
“It’s more personable,” he says. “Government is seen as a slow behemoth — we want to show we’re nimble. [People] participate now, they are involved in the conversation.”
Twitter and elected officials: three to see, plus resources
Local level: Gavin Newsom, mayor, San Francisco
Approaching 1 million followers, the mayor of the City by the Bay famously announced his candidacy for governor of California on Twitter.
Tweet from @GavinNewsom: Met with Pres. Calderon of Mexico today at Los Pinos — talked about climate change, immigration and economy.
State level: Jennifer Granholm, governor, Michigan
This social media-savvy governor is highly interactive on Twitter, retweeting and conversing through @ replies.
Federal level: Eric Cantor, representative, Virginia
The Republican whip for the 111th Congress was recently named the fourth most interesting Conservative tweeter by the Web site Top Conservatives on Twitter (Twitter #TCOT).
Two Web resources
Govtwit.com: “The world’s largest directory” of government entities on Twitter.
Tweetcongress.org: “A grass-roots effort to get our men and women in Congress to open up and have a real conversation with us.”
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