People who came of age in the aughts tend to realize that their stupid life decisions and emotional tirades are unlikely to generate Huffington Post homepage fodder. Though they’re aware that a friend may post photos of their more inebriated moments on Facebook, they have the perspective to realize they won’t look like too much […]
People who came of age in the aughts tend to realize that their stupid life decisions and emotional tirades are unlikely to generate Huffington Post homepage fodder. Though they’re aware that a friend may post photos of their more inebriated moments on Facebook, they have the perspective to realize they won’t look like too much of an idiot — at least not for too long.
If I were considering running for public office, I wouldn’t fearlessly tweet on a daily basis about how D.C. Metro riders and tourists should escort themselves to the gates of hell (like I do now). When you’re a political candidate in the age of social media and “gotcha” journalism, those party pictures from senior year and temptingly profane ideological rants can go viral just when your campaign needs them the least.
Should young people use social media now if they want to run for political office later?
Yes — especially if they treat social media like other communications tools and learn how to balance being human with being a candidate.
This process begins with the acceptance that we can’t control what other people post about us online. It’s a risk that every social media user takes, especially those who aspire to a political career.
Congressional Hopeful: O.K. to Make Mistakes
Krystal Ball is a mother, small business owner and CPA who ran as the Democratic nominee for Virginia’s first congressional district last year. Some people mistakenly assumed she wouldn’t fight back when, a mere month before election day, photographs of her dressed as a naughty Santa six years earlier began to surface in the media.
In a Huffington Post piece last year, Ball called the photos sexist and wrote:
The tactic of making female politicians into whores is nothing new … I realized that photos like the ones of me, and ones much racier, would end up coming into the public sphere when women of my generation run for office.
The moral of Ball’s story is that political aspirants can’t just sit on the sidelines out of fear. Today, Ball is an advocate for using social media in the right way as a political candidate. That means choosing topics carefully, but not sanitizing them and purging them of any useful meaning.
When I spoke with Ball last week, she acknowledged that everyone does stupid things from time to time, and sometimes those blunders are caught on camera or video.
“Don’t let knowledge of unflattering photos keep you from running, because voters are accepting and forgiving,” she said. “The person who put those photos out there wanted to hurt me. Instead it gave me an opportunity to say something that I thought was very important.”
Don’t let the past hold you back, but when you can control what is said or posted about you online, try not to act like a complete idiot.
Self-Editing for Positive Advocacy
Michael Komo graduated from George Washington University this month. Komo is the kind of 20-something who will make the country a better place. He ran the university’s LGBT Resource Center, served as the president of Allied in Pride and interned for Senator Robert Casey Jr. (D-Pa.).
As a campus leader, Komo believes that social media can be a successful tool for promoting causes and running for office, but he consciously self-edits his posts, so his words don’t negatively impact the organizations he supports. He adds the line “opinions are mine” on his Twitter profile and tries to focus on positive advocacy.
“I am more likely to commend a politician for a stance I agree with (voting for the repeal of DADT) rather than attack a politician for a stance I disagree with (not supporting marriage equality),” said Komo. “There are, of course, times when I cannot help but express my disappointment with some people (Westboro Baptist Church) and their deplorable actions (protesting funerals). Social media can be a double-edged sword. If someone attaches his or her name to an opinion, political stance or action online it will be recorded forever.”
Using Social Media to Leverage a Political Career
Jill Miller Zimon is one of a handful of political bloggers who have run for and won elected office.
When Zimon ran for her hometown’s city council, she was the first candidate to have an Internet presence and use social media. Zimon, who has blogged since 2005 on her own site and for national outlets, recommends setting ground rules for social media that encourage healthy conversation without detracting from one’s personality as a writer and a candidate.
“Most people who know me are very clear about my expectations for engagement in terms of civility (both in language and how we debate each other) and I’m not shy about reminding people about those expectations,” says Zimon. “Having a recognizable set of limitations on what I will or won’t tolerate in how others engage also allows people to say to me, ‘Jill – that’s not like you!’ and that helps figure out the boundaries as well.”
When she does use unusually harsh language, Zimon knows people will take note of it.
“That’s very important,” she says. “My constituents can engage with me at many different levels and figure out how strongly I feel about something just from how I tweet or Facebook-comment about it.”
Zimon points out that successful candidates will find as many opportunities as possible to communicate one-on-one with voters. Good candidates engage their constituents in conversation at community events, on the phone and when knocking on doors. This increasingly requires using social media well.
Republican political consultant Mindy Finn, who worked on two presidential campaigns before founding Engage DC, believes “social media breaks down the barrier for any candidate, regardless of age, wealth or resume, to show what they have to offer.” Think thoroughly about how your posts will affect others, and be prepared to respond appropriately when someone engages you in conversation.
“There are still basic rules that apply to social as they do to any form of public communication,” says Finn.
In other words, don’t turn off your brain before logging into Facebook. Use it, along with other tools, to communicate effectively and connect with others. Accept your past. Engage in the present. Don’t allow fear to prevent you from being the kind of leader that your community needs.
Julie Barko Germany is the vice president of digital strategy at DCI Group, a global grassroots public affairs firm in Washington, D.C. The opinions expressed here are her own and do not reflect her organization or its clients.