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Statehouse Tweets: Incoming Governors Pick Social Media Strategies

BY Nick Judd | Friday, January 7 2011

Source: Wikimedia

Friday, if Twitter is to be believed, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley turned into a tweet machine, snapping photos on a BlackBerry and posting them to the social network in order to share his excitement about a forum on sustainability and smart growth he had convened that day at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills, Md.

While on the campaign trail in 2010, many of the 37 governors elected or re-elected last year, and their staffs, had the chance to become well acquainted with how to communicate through Twitter — if they weren't already. Now, though, as governors settle in for four-year terms, press shops have a new challenge: How to leverage those Twitter identities for public officials rather than campaigners.

The fare from O'Malley's Twitter feed on Friday ran the Twitter-best-practices gamut. He quietly promoted a hashtag with the message, "I'm looking forward to today's forum — we need to keep moving forward in a sustainable way #md4ward." He shared a personal thought about how Maryland's natural beauty reminds him of the need to protect its resources. Some things about politics never change, like the need to publicly acknowledge current and former public officials at every event. And as things got underway at his event, he plugged another account that would be active.

This is the first large class of American public officials to run an entire campaign and begin to govern in a social-media-saturated world. It shouldn't be surprising that there are officials like O'Malley who have bought into using Twitter to communicate with the public.

"We have a staffer who, among many other responsibilities, is in charge of the actual updating of the Twitter and Facebook accounts, and interaction with constituents," O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec told me Friday in an e-mail. "The Governor frequently will send us in an email of Blackberry PIN messages to include on these platforms, so in that sense, yes, it is actually him."

But incoming public officials have a particular problem when it comes to their social media accounts — separating their campaign identities from their public ones. How to proceed there is not quite so clear-cut.

"We're clearly in uncharted territory," Adamec, a spokesman for O'Malley, told me via email. O'Malley's campaign staff continue to maintain a campaign account, he told me, while his state staffers work with him on his official account.

Not everyone is as fastidious. While O'Malley's press shop keeps his gubernatorial account separate from another one used for campaign activity, according to Adamec, California Gov. Jerry Brown's staff has posted a link on the governor's official webpage to the same account he used during the campaign, which has over 1 million followers.

This presents a potentially hairy issue, as there should normally be a bright line between campaign assets and governmental ones. (The last tweet that currently appears on that Twitter account, though, is from Jan. 4, announcing that he was about to be sworn in.)

"We’re four days into the new administration and three days away from introducing a budget to address a massive multi-billion dollar deficit," a spokesman for Brown, Evan Westrup, wrote to me in an email. "While the Governor will no doubt continue to have a social media presence, what that looks like is still being decided."

Indeed, after I started trading emails with Westrup, Brown's handle, "JerryBrown2010," was renamed to JerryBrownGov.

Jessica Levinson, the director of political reform at the California-based good government group Center for Governmental Studies, sees the potential benefits of a sitting governor able to communicate 140 characters at a time with over 1 million people outweighing any ethical dilemmas this may present.

"On the one side there is a strong public interest in Jerry Brown being able to communicate with as many people as possible, and if this is increasingly the way we do that, then great," Levinson said. "However, there are questions as to where the money is coming from to build up that following."

The questions, argue Levinson and Common Cause California's Katie Fleming, become stickier when an account used while in office comes with you when you leave.

California's outgoing governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was an active Twitter user with nearly 2 million followers. Until very recently, he was still using the same account to interact with supporters and other public notables. Just this past Monday, he and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev used Twitter to plan a ski trip. (More on that at the Washington Post and elsewhere.)

"Is he now going to use that to help him sell his book or get lucrative speaking appointments?" Levinson, of the Center for Governmental Studies, asked. "Is that appropriate?"

The former Gubernator's last tweet was Jan. 5, the day after Brown's swearing-in. The account's biographical information has not yet been updated to reflect that he is no longer governor. What happens next, apparently, remains to be seen.

Likewise, Brown may be opting out of future private use of his well-developed list of Twitter followers.

"Once [Brown] sort of hands over that list to the government of California, basically by taking it with him, it's not a public resource," Fleming said.

Not that either of them are particularly likely to care. As has oft been repeated by America's chattering classes, Schwarzenegger's next logical step after being governor would be the presidency — except he is ineligible, not having been born in this country. Brown, who is into his seventies, is not likely to seek another political office either.

Other governors have avoided this issue, like Maryland's O'Malley, by keeping a studious separation between personal and campaign accounts. Ohio's Gov. John Kasich and Texas' Rick Perry, both Republicans, keep separate accounts for their personal voice and their campaign content. On his personal Twitter bio, Perry includes links to his campaign account and to an official account representing the voice of the governor's office.

And many state executives simply aren't invested in Twitter. Of the 37 governors elected or re-elected this year, 36 at least had Twitter accounts, but most of them are still geared towards the campaign and don't reference an official presence. There were multiple accounts for Colorado's John Hickenlooper, none of them with an icon, particularly many followers, or a lot of content, making him number 37. Michigan's Rick Snyder has a campaign account that hadn't tweeted as of Jan. 6.

As Brown's spokesman Evan Westrup put it, governors across the country have a lot more to worry about than how to handle their Twitter accounts. But the medium, and social media generally, have demonstrable potential as tools for direct conversation between elected officials and the people who put them into office — which, as state budgets shrink, may become increasingly important to press shops trying to find every way possible to put a friendly face on governors who may see more ink for painful use of their service-cutting and veto-pen-using than for anything else.

Here's how Adamec, who handles press for Maryland's Martin O'Malley, put it to me in an email:

We live in a communications world that is no longer about contact lists, it’s about networks. Constituents expect to be able to interact with the Governor and his staff and we try to provide the opportunities to do so. Press releases are important, but don’t always answer the questions people have. These social network interactions allow not only constituents to have a line to the Governor’s office, but also for the Governor’s office to engage with the public and have a sense of what Maryland families are thinking and feeling, particularly during these tough times.

At all levels of government, how to comply with laws and ethics built for the 20th century in a 21st-century world will be a defining issue for incoming officials this year. If you see any of their stories that might offer some insight, or you're part of one, tell me about it.

This story was updated on Jan. 8.