When Jim Brainard won his first election for Carmel mayor in 1996, there obviously wasn’t any Facebook or Twitter to send out campaign messages. Google didn’t even exist back then and Internet users relied on slow dial-up services.
But nowadays Brainard is just like most everyone else, posting photos and sending status updates to connect with voters.
His opponent in the mayor’s race, City Council President Rick Sharp, is just as active, sharing newspaper articles and commenting on issues that voters care about.
“I don’t see how you can function in a modern political environment without it,” Sharp said.
The back and forth is interesting. When Sharp posted videos and photos of his election announcement speech, Brainard posted later on Facebook his comments on facing an opponent.
Social media isn’t a fad. It’s the new way to communicate, but how important is it in an election? How should local politicians – who are often running their own campaigns on a small budget – utilize this tool?
TIP No. 1: Establish a presence.
As candidates begin to file their paperwork and develop a campaign strategy, many decide it’s time to start using Facebook and Twitter to connect with voters.
Kiel Kinnaman, owner of CarmelChatter.com, said he’s noticed some local candidates who never used Facebook before are now suddenly posting constantly.
“Some only use social media during election time which isn’t going to help them because it takes more than four months to really build a following,” he said.
Todd Muffley, CEO and founder of Fat Atom Marketing in Carmel, said it’s important to make a commitment to social media instead of just posting sporadically.
“No one follows a twitter account that isn’t consistently tweeting, and there is no use for a Facebook page without regular posts,” he said. “If you don’t have time, hire someone else to run it, but an online presence can only thrive with constant attention.”
TIP No. 2: Don’t trust the sample size
Facebook and Twitter can be great tools for engaging with voters and finding out what they think about issues, but it’s not a scientific poll.
City Councilor Sue Finkam has managed company’s social media campaigns through her professional career in marketing. She said it’s great to interact with people, but there may be many people with different opinions who don’t use social media.
“I will say that social media could be a trap for a candidate,” she said. “Most friends and followers interact with you because they have similar outlooks and beliefs as you do, but they are a small subset of the general population, and may not be voters at all. Social media is but one tool in the candidate’s toolbox.”
TIP No. 3: Don’t just talk, get people involved
Liking someone’s status updates is great, but the next step for candidates is to turn theses online fans into voters and volunteers. More than just sharing a status update, it can be a challenge to encourage new people to share their time or money.
Bruce Kimball, who is running the central council district against incumbent Eric Seidensticker, said he’s found most of his volunteers through social media. Kimball regularly posts photos and articles about what he loves about Carmel and he said it’s helped him connect with people who share his viewpoints.
“I’m sort of ‘moderating’ with social media but the emphasis is connecting one on one with particular voters,” he said.
Sharp said he’s spent money promoting his “Rick Sharp for Carmel” page with ads. As a result, he said he’s connected to people who have helped him raise nearly $100,000 in 2014 already. Of course, Sharp said Facebook is usually just an introduction or a reminder. He said you still have to get out and shake people’s hands.
TIP No. 4 Don’t get into a war
News outlets love reporting on celebrity Twitter wars. And although not as much attention is paid to local politicians in that regard, Kinnaman said he feels a heated thread online can make a candidate appear immature.
“A comment war would be damaging,” he said. “It’s best for candidates to handle things in a more formal setting.”
City Councilor Ron Carter said he makes certain rules for himself online. He ignores anyone who “hides” behind anonymous Twitter names, especially anyone who doesn’t even have a photo on their account.
Sharp said if someone tries to attack him online he tries to use that moment as a chance to correctly inform the person on his positions and try to turn it into a positive.
Brainard said you have to decide when to engage and when it’s best to ignore. Sometimes it’s wise to correct misinformation that could be damaging, but “not if the blog only has five visitors then it’s not worth the time.”
FInkam said you have to take the good with the bad and not take it personally.
“I try to remember that even though someone posts something negative, often we have things in common,” she said. “I try to find ways to educate or find commonality.”
Tip No. 5: Watch out for your friends and family
Candidates also have to be aware that their friends could post something on their pages or tag them in a comment that could make them look bad.
“I try to politely tell them that I appreciate their help,” Carter said. “But that they need to be certain they are being helpful before they hit send.”
And parents have to be careful that their kids don’t say something online that could be used in an election.
“I have had the conversation with our pre-teen that what he posts online is an extension of what I post,” Finkam said. “I don’t think he understands that yet, which is understandable. He’s still trying to find his own voice in life. I try to monitor his posts regularly for a variety of reasons, but as most parents find, it’s very difficult.”
Tip No. 6: Don’t overvalue social media
While Facebook and Twitter are necessary evils in running a campaign, like many have said, it’s only one tool. City Councilor Luci Snyder said that she’s been told she needs to update herself and start using social media to spread her message. At first, she said she didn’t understand where someone finds the time to post so regularly on Facebook, but she said she’s going to make the effort, but not at the expense of other forms of communication.
“Social media can’t do everything I need it to do,” she said. “You can’t explain everything in ten words. It’s a great way to communicate with people but I think you still need to go out and talk to your constituents face to face. So many people aren’t on Facebook and even those that are I still find it’s important to look people in the eye and tell them what you plan on doing.”