Becky Fleischauer is a former National Governors Association staffer, governor geek and the founder of Navigator Communications—a media and public affairs firm advancing health and education.
When the nation's governors gather in Washington, D.C., February 25-27, much will be made of the severe budget conditions in which governors operate. One area where governors are doing much more with less is on Twitter.
Restricted to a draconian 140-character budget per tweet, governors are using Twitter to deliver their messages and connect with the citizenry in some interesting ways.
Since the 2010 election, 16 state chief executives joined the Twittersphere. All 50 governors now have a presence on Twitter with a collective 2 million-plus followers. To date Democratic governors outpace Republicans—1.5 million to 544,000 followers.
In social media spheres, influence is not measured by follower size. Governors with the highest "Klout" scores—a Nielsen-type rating system of social media use tweets to weave larger narratives that sway and activate. Take Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (@GovernorOMalley) who has been tweeting for weeks about marriage equality, using the Twitter hashtag #MD4equality: "We are One Maryland. #MD4Equality #MDSSM pic.twitter.com/9CFRzByz"
O'Malley signaled early and often that the issue is part of the state's larger strategy to lead in business, innovation, and economic opportunity. Time will tell what impact it has on his Klout score of 64, just four points behind New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (@GovChristie) whose Twitter feed has been much quieter on the issue.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who goes by @onetoughnerd (a clever homage to his tech roots), received a Klout score bump after he hosted his first social media townhall meeting February 9. Michiganders tweeted hundreds of questions using the hashtag #AskGovSnyder. The governor got credit from all political stripes for a lightning round question and answer session that covered roads, education, taxes, job creation, and more. Speaking to the Michigan Press Association, Snyder said Twitter provides a cost-effective way to take his message right to residents and for Michiganders to have direct access to him.
Governors' tweets are a potpourri of political and personal. In addition to budget plans and wranglings with the legislature, Twitter users can learn that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (@GovWalker) caught a flu bug from his son Alex. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (@GovernorPerry) represents nearly 26 million people, few of whom will hunt or go for a run with the governor and his dogs. Through Twitter Texans share his dogs, runs, and hunts. South Carolinians joined Gov. Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) and her family in seeing Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (@GovernorMarkell) burnished local pride with a Twitter conversation about the First State's most #RomanticDE Valentines Day locations.
The platform initially confounded press offices that wanted to be transparent about who was doing the tweeting—the boss or staff. Some put staff initials behind tweets; others created separate press office accounts. In recent months, more governors are tweeting in the first person and on their own, creating tweets that are less stiff and more personal (writing out a governor's name can take up a third of the 140 character limit). And, as the PR mantra goes, when you're spending more time talking about yourself, you lose your audience.
In addition to providing a direct channel for delivering a governor's message, Twitter can be a powerful listening tool. In fact some pundits say social media may render polling obsolete. That's why it's remarkable that a few governors' accounts follow no one and several others follow fewer than 100. Perhaps there is a fear that following will connote some kind of endorsement or association, but it's now commonly understood that following is a gesture of good will and willingness to listen. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (@MassGovernor) follows more than 11,000 and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (@BobbyJindal), just over 22,000. Both routinely retweet and deliver shoutouts to constituents.
While California Gov. Jerry Brown (@JerryBrownGov) has the largest following—1.1 million, state population does not dictate the size of governors' following. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) has just 19,000 followers. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (@GovChristie) has 92,821 and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (@BobbyJindal) has 70,305.
While governors' focus is mostly local, several engage beyond state lines. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, the next National Governors Association chairman, tweeted from a DC-based National Press Club Kauffman Foundation forum on job creation. Governor Christie's tweets frequently weigh in on national issues, including the death of Whitney Houston. Klout labels Markell a "Specialist" whose tweets are consistent and focused with a "highly-engaged audience," and Christie a "Pundit" whose "opinions are wide-spread and highly trusted."
Twitter allows parody accounts like @GovCrazyPants in Maine if the account is clearly labeled as parody. Other gubernatorial spoof accounts have cropped up in North Carolina, New Mexico, and Delaware. Pearse Edwards, who has worked for governors in North Carolina and Washington state, advises against working to shut down parody accounts unless they are abusive. "Enjoy a laugh and move on," Edwards said.
The now-you-see-it-now-you-don't nature of Twitter makes it a more charitable space. Perhaps because twitizens are so anxious for the next conversation, memories are shorter and attention du jour.
As leaders of laboratories of democracy, governors deserve a lot of credit for their social media efforts. They out-represent their fellow elected leaders in Congress on Twitter and for the most part place a premium on connecting to their constituents in new and creative ways. Tweet on, governors.
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