Experts weigh on social media in local political campaigns


How are social media platforms used in local campaigns today? Experts say that it should be part of every campaign as a means to recruit volunteers and raise funds.

They warned against posting negative messages on an opponent’s social media pages because they risk harm to their candidate–“Even though social media sites allow for some anonymity, the truth usually comes out.”

To find out more about social media in political campaigns, Inweekly interviewed April Schiff, a top political consultant in Florida, and Dr. Kelli Burns, a University of South Florida associate professor who specializes in social media.

Schiff is co-founder and a president of Strategic Solutions of Florida in Tampa, Fla. Schiff’s clients have included former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez among many other statewide and local races during the past 20 years. She is also president of the American Association of Political Consultants Southern Chapter.

Burns, who teaches in the School of Mass Communications, is the author of the book, “Celeb 2.0: How Social Media Foster Our Fascination with Popular Culture,” and her research on social media has been published in several journals.

Compared to the many aspects of a candidate’s campaign, how does social media rank?
SCHIFF: It is a big phenomenon that’s here to stay. You have to do it in local campaigns, like it or not.

We’ve used it pretty successfully in fundraising and recruiting volunteers. One of the biggest benefits is that the people who are engaged in social media in the political arena are the people everyone in the neighborhood goes to for information.

You don’t know who you’re hitting out there but we’ve found it effective and beneficial in our races.

BURNS: Social media should be part of a campaign strategy that includes many other communications tools. It is not the most important way to connect with voters, but definitely necessary.

Voters now expect all candidates to not only have a website, but also a presence on sites like Facebook and Twitter and will question the viability of candidates who don’t use these platforms.

How is it best utilized, besides fundraising and volunteer recruiting?

SCHIFF: One of the most effective things you can do is put out information that people can engage in. Candidates playing with their children. Something controversial or compelling, like an article. If you get a few hundred likes or a few hundred more followers, it is worth the effort. So, content is important.

We devise a social media strategy in all of our campaign plans now. Primarily, it’s Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for videos you can put up.

BURNS: In today’s campaign environment, all candidates must not only create a presence on sites like Facebook and Twitter, but maintain the profiles by regularly posting campaign news and other informational items and engaging with constituents.

The best content offers great photography or interesting infographics. Additionally, because Facebook uses an algorithm that selects only certain posts to appear in users’ news feeds, candidates should consider promoted posts and paid ads to ensure their messages are presented to the demographic groups they are targeting. Similarly, candidates could use promoted tweets on Twitter.

Using a Facebook page is preferred because it offers a number of advantages, namely that you are not limited in the number of friends you can have and that you can utilize Facebook analytics and advertising.

What do you think of planting negative messages about your opponent on your, your opponents’ or others’ social media platforms?
SCHIFF: You can’t control that stuff. It’s going to happen.

I discourage my candidates and their followers from doing that. It just gets messy.

I’m a stickler for facts. If you do it, you better have it backed up with information that’s reliable. If [social media] is the only way for you to get it out there and it’s valid, then go for it.

But so many times mudslinging is not factual and it can be damaging.

BURNS: Anyone associated with a campaign risks harm to their candidate if they attempt to plant negative messages on an opponent’s social media profiles. Even though social media sites allow for some anonymity, the truth usually comes out.

A candidate’s social media platforms provide a vehicle to engage with supporters, but also offers opportunities for detractors to post negative messages.

Do you have an example of how social media was the difference in one of your local campaigns?
SCHIFF: It’s something that helps the overall effort. I’ve not seen in any of my campaigns where social media was the turning point. I’m big into grassroots. I emphasize shaking hands and knocking on doors.

BURNS: For the most part, people who follow candidates on social media already support the candidate and only a small percentage of voters will even bother to connect with candidates on social media sites.

The beauty of social media, however, is that when people comment or share posts, their friends are exposed to the messages on their own news feeds. That familiarity may help on Election Day.

Social media can help strengthen voter commitment, increase campaign donations, and remind people to vote for their candidate. Furthermore, social media can be particularly helpful to a candidate who is challenging an incumbent, particularly if the incumbent’s social media effort is weak.