Tools of the Trade: Social media rules! June 2013  | STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE

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To take full advantage of the power of social media, here are some lessons learned from the successes and failures of others.

By Jon Kuhl

Connecticut Senator Bob Duff (D) doesn’t mind being called the “Cory Booker of Connecticut.” Booker is the social media master mayor of Newark, N.J., who has more than 1.3 million Twitter followers. Like Booker, Duff posts several times a day on Twitter and Facebook. He covers everything from useful traffic updates to important news from the state Capitol to fun Super Bowl polls.

“The media are very fractured right now,” says Senator Duff. “I have to find many ways to communicate with my constituents.” In particular, Duff says social media allows him to reach more of his younger constituents. “Interacting with high school and college students on Facebook and Twitter helps them understand their government better. And if this helps keep them engaged, I think that’s great.”

Having an active and large social media following allows him to communicate when it matters most, like when Hurricane Sandy took out the power for many of his constituents. With only their smart phones available for communication, Duff tweeted back and forth with them, keeping them up-to-date on developments until power was restored.

 “@SenatorDuff wow. We must have called [the electric company] a dozen times past few days. Can’t thank you enough for getting thru to them!” tweeted a happy constituent.

The uses of social media continue to expand. In January, Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma (R) hosted the state’s first “Tweet Seats” during Republican Governor Mike Pence’s State of the State address. Bosma chose five individuals to tweet live from the statehouse during the governor’s address. “We must continue to embrace technology and consider new ways to communicate to the public,” says Bosma. “It is evident that social media is not a trend, but is here to stay.” For him, social media is an extension of the work he has done to bring transparency to the legislative process, such as live-streaming the House chamber and committee rooms for constituents to watch online.

Tory Flynn, communications director for the Indiana House Republicans, who organized Tweet Seats, was pleased that it “accomplished exactly what we had hoped for: an increase in followers, reaching out to new people, and communicating about state government in an engaging manner. Flynn’s next project, “tweet sheets,” is an ongoing effort to build support for legislation sponsored by the Republican caucus. When a bill is introduced by a caucus member, Flynn sends out the legislator’s Twitter handle, photos and other information. 
These examples are just a couple of ways social media can be used effectively for communicating with constituents and the public, but there are also some things to be careful of.

Appliance giant KitchenAid recently found out the hard way what not to do with social media. During one of the presidential debates last fall, a KitchenAid social media team member mistakenly tweeted a derogatory comment about Obama’s grandmother’s death on the company’s official Twitter account, thinking he was sending it from his personal account. Outrage ensued and the company quickly released the following statement: “During the debate tonight, a member of our Twitter team mistakenly posted an offensive tweet from the KitchenAid handle instead of a personal handle. The tasteless joke in no way represents our values at KitchenAid, and that person won’t be tweeting for us anymore.”

Handles, Hashtags and Likes

Facebook Like and Comment: The Like button allows users to show their support for a post or photo without having to write a comment. Clicking the Comment allows that.

Twitter Handle:  This is a fancy term for a username. For example, NCSL tweets under the handle @NCSLorg.

Twitter Hashtag: Tweeters mark keywords or topics with the # symbol to draw attention to that topic. For example, when tweeting about immigration, one might use “#immigration” somewhere within the 140 character limit, which will alert others interested in immigration issues.

Trending on Twitter: When many users tweet about the same topic or phrase, it is considered trending in the Twitter world.


Are young people the only ones using social media?
No. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, although young people ages 18 to 29 use social media more than any other age group (83 percent), it is popular with older Internet users as well: 77 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds, 52 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds, and a third of the over-65 crowd.

Which social media sites are the most popular?
Facebook takes the cake and more here, with 67 percent of Internet users on it. Twitter comes in second at 16 percent, and the photo sharing site Pinterest is moving up fast, now in third place with 15 percent, according to the same Pew study.

Are voters active on social media?
Yes. Facebook reported 71.7 million election-related comments made by U.S. users last Election Day. If you were following Senator Duff on Twitter, you would have received this friendly reminder: “If you believe in your heart that I’ve served you well, then I respectfully ask for your support and vote today. Polls are open from 6am-8pm.”

Whether it’s you, or someone tweeting on your behalf, it’s easy to get the personal crossed with the professional. And like it or not, once something is out there, it’s out there for everyone to see (just ask former Congressman Anthony Weiner). 

So, what are the lessons in these examples? For starters:

Learn from others

Follow those you admire. Read their social media posts regularly. Legislative caucuses in 40 states use Facebook and in 37 states use Twitter to get their messages out.

Keep it fresh

Make your comments concise, interesting, varied and authentic. Examples include your views on legislation, upcoming events for constituents, photos in the community, and interesting retweets, etc. The appropriate range is wide, as long as it stays professional.

Post regularly

The best time to tweet is between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Monday–Thursday, according to Bitly, the URL shortening and bookmarking service. The worst times are after 8 p.m. any day and after 3 p.m. on Fridays. Facebook traffic picks up between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., with Wednesday at 3 p.m. being the absolute sweetest spot. Having new content keeps your followers engaged and helps you attract new ones.

Be smart.

Think about what you’re posting before hitting the send button, and don’t send out anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of your local newspaper the next day

Admit errors.

Mistakes happen; misinformation gets disseminated. When something goes wrong, “own” up to it, and apologize quickly before it goes viral.

Jon Kuhl manages public affairs from NCSL’s Washington, D.C., office.