(Note: This is the final installment in a three-part series on the evolving use of social media in government and campaigns. Part 1 of the series examined how state departments are integrating the use of Twitter and Facebook in their communication plans. See that story here. Part 2 looked at how legislators on the state level are utilizing social media with mixed results. Read that story here. Today, IdahoReporter.com shows that candidates for the U.S. Congress are looking to establish a social media presence.)
When it comes to elections, President Barack Obama, during his push for the White House in 2008, set new standards on campaign communication and the use of social media. After becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, then-Sen. Obama set out to choose his running mate in the typical fashion. He vetted several individuals before making his pick. What was not typical, however, was how Obama announced then-Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate. On Aug. 23, 2008, Obama sent a text message to his supporters at 3 a.m. announcing the pick.
Obama later raised the social media stakes, as he became the first sitting U.S. president to send a tweet (a message over Twitter.) His Twitter account is usually managed by a staffer, but on Jan, 18, 2009, Obama sent his first official tweet from an American Red Cross office he and the first lady were visiting.
With the commander-in-chief utilizing Twitter, the effects of his presence can be felt down the line of the federal government, and even here in Idaho, where most of the major candidates for Congress utilize the services of Facebook or Twitter or blogs. Congressman Walt Minnick, a Democrat representing Idaho's 1st District, has two Twitter accounts, one for his official congressional office and one for this campaign team. The two men vying to challenge him, state Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, and Vaughn Ward, a Marine reservist, both have Twitter accounts through which they post links to press releases and news articles favorable to their respective campaigns. Of all the congressional candidates in Idaho, Ward has the largest presence on Twitter, with 685. Labrador trails Ward by 180 followers. Minnick, on his campaign Twitter account, has 153 followers. All three contenders have campaign pages on Facebook. None of the men utilize blogging services, but Ward's wife, Kirsten, authors a blog on his campaign site updating followers on the happenings of the campaign trail.
John Foster, spokesmen for the Minnick campaign, said that he plans to increase his boss's presence on Facebook and Twitter heading into the November general election. Foster, however, will not focus on gaining the most followers on either social media site. He will, instead, seek Idahoans who are actively engaging in politics and will work to bring them to the Minnick camp. The key to social media, Foster said, is not to impress journalists or potential voters with a myriad of followers or to simply use social media to link to press releases. Instead, he wants to provide followers with personal and sociable messages designed to start a conversation about particular topics. "Frankly, I think people have become attune, in their social media lives, to a lack of authenticity," Foster said.
In a presentation in downtown Boise in the fall of 2009, Foster said that the most important thing for a social media user to remember is that "it's not about you." He said that Twitter and Facebook users have wasted their time with social media by sharing mundane and unimportant facts, like what they had for breakfast. To become an effective communicator through social media, a person must realize that the content is the most important aspect of the communication transaction, argued Foster. He urged those gathered to focus on supplying interesting content that provokes thought and additional inquiry by those receiving messages. Those are the strategies that Foster has tried to implement in Minnick's social media offerings.
In Idaho's 2nd Congressional District, the social media situation is a bit different. The Republican incumbent, Mike Simpson, has a Facebook page, but no Twitter. Simpson does have a campaign blog, on which he has three posts. His two challengers for the GOP nomination, Chick Heileson and Russ Mathews, both have Twitter, though with limited impact. Heileson has 158 followers on Twitter and Mathews has 108. On Facebook, however, it's a different story. Heileson, with 747 Facebook fans, is trouncing Mathews, with 82 supporters, and Simpson, who has 438 Facebook fans. Heileson also authors a blog, on which he has 11 posts on his opinions of governance.
Ron Baker, one of the managers for Heileson's campaign, said his boss's social media following is a barometer for the support of his candidacy and the result of a sustained effort to maintain a social media presence in the race. Earlier in the year, Baker, using a text messaging marketing tool to contact supporters, asked for volunteers to help with an upcoming event. "Within 15 minutes, we had 47 volunteer to help, so yeah, I think Chick's followers are true supporters," said Baker.
Going forward, social media looks to continue its evolution in campaigns. Several candidates for the Idaho Legislature are using text messaging services, similar in nature to those used by Obama during his campaign, to remind voters to go to the polls on May 25 for the primary election. It is likely that social media will continue to provide campaigns with additional tools to reach out to potential voters and donors in ways never imagined even 10 years ago.