Campaign contribution: Social media advice for local candidates

A version of this story appears in the Feb. 9, 2012, edition of the Rutland County Express.

Town Meeting Day is right around the corner, and in Rutland that means a slew of seats on the city’s Board of Aldermen are up for grabs.

This year, five two-year seats are in play, with a sixth one-year seat being sought uncontested by current Alderman Christopher Robinson. Of the other five, eight candidates have thrown their hats into the ring, and with only half of those candidates being current board members, we are guaranteed to see at least one new face inside the rail come March 6. (And by the end of the second paragraph, I believe I have used up every electoral euphemism known to man.)

Small town politics are all about one’s credibility and character, more so than in a statewide or national election. There’s no spin here — no focus group or sound bites. Your brand is you; it’s not something that can be re-tooled and tweaked, it doesn’t change based on the latest poll or the audience you are speaking with at a given moment. Party affiliations don’t (and shouldn’t) matter. You get elected based on who you are and the impression you make on a personal level. And in a close-knit community like Rutland, who you are is not something you can run from.

In the coming weeks, campaign signs will clutter lawns, and local news coverage in the Rutland Herald and on PEGTV will help us “better know” these candidates and what they stand for. With five current aldermen running, there are some known quantities in the mix. To be sure, long-time incumbents like Sharon Davis and David Allaire need no introduction to voters, and will likely enjoy a smooth ride to Election Day.

Others, however, are lesser known. They will need to get their names out there. And while the aforementioned traditional media is a reliable platform from which to deliver one’s message, new media is becoming increasingly significant. Candidates who overlook this development are remiss to do so.

To be fair, getting elected to the Board of Aldermen in Rutland can certainly be accomplished without having an online presence. (I don’t expect to see a Davis or Allaire social media blitz in the coming weeks.)

It’s no secret that much of this town remains unplugged. But Rutland’s online profile is rapidly changing. Indeed, more people are plugging in. Websites are a snap to create now. Facebook is almost too mainstream to stand these days. Even Twitter is making inroads locally.

For a candidate, having a website or, better yet Facebook page, is a simple and effective way to put your message out there. A quick online search in preparation for this column yielded very little: currently, only two candidates are on Facebook in an official capacity and only one has a website; though, the other’s Facebook wall promised a website by the weekend.

You could argue that it’s a little early — the vote isn’t until March 6 — but I would posit that if you are going to mount a social media/online campaign, you should have that strategy worked out before you even submit your petition. Of course, taking this step might be intimidating for some candidates so here are some tips.

Let’s start with the website. While a standalone website is nice, it’s not essential. All the same information can be conveyed on a Facebook page with the added benefits of having greater reach and engaging voters directly. Websites are a static medium. In contrast, a Facebook page is dynamic and, when executed well, can present a candidate three-dimensionally — giving voters a sense of not only a candidate’s policies, but also how they interact and engage voters on the page.

If you feel you must do a website, make it clean and simple. When it comes to design, I may be more critical than the average voter, but the way your website looks will leave an impression. A sloppy, disorganized site with unclear information could do more harm than good (Remember, this site is a representation of you.) If you don’t have the time or capabilities to do it right, it’s best not to do it at all.

Fortunately, services like WordPress allow you to build a professional looking site in a matter of minutes for little or no money. Once your site is up, make sure the content you put there is relevant and reads well (remember to spell check!), and don’t forget to tell people about it. This may sound like a no-brainer, but you can’t expect people to find you on their own.

While a website is a good start, Facebook is where you really want to be. Having a social media presence allows you to engage voters directly (and vice versa). Facebook also makes it easier to be found. Spreading your message is as easy as getting people to “like” and “share” what you post. However, before diving headfirst into the Facebook pool, you need to consider a few things.

First, learn this rule: Groups are good. Pages are better. Profiles are bad. If you are trying to reach a wide audience, a page is hands down the way to go. Groups are a good alternative that allow for slightly more control (too much, in my opinion — membership can be restricted, direct notification/messaging capabilities allow for individual communication, which can be overkill), but they can be too insular.

However, personal profile pages are a bad move. The problem here is that people need to ask or be asked to friend you. By doing so, you are gaining access to a vast amount of personal information, which voters may not care to share with you. Having a page allows voters to find out about you without disclosing any personal information. Many businesses and organizations make this mistake and, in my opinion, it’s a big social media faux pas. As a rule, I do not accept these types of friend requests. (Blogger and social media consultant Katye Munger tackled this topic recently on her blog, localsocialvt.wordpress.com.)

Once you have you page set up, you can invite people to “like” it and encourage them to invite others. As you build a base of subscribers, any content you post will appear in their streams. This is a good way to share your views on issues that matter to you and ask voters what matters to them.

Ideally, you will start to have meaningful exchanges on your page. Conversely, creating such an open forum means that people may challenge you. Comment moderation is a delicate thing. Deleting comments should be a last resort used when a commenter makes personal or baseless attacks.

Respectful disagreement or criticism, however, should be welcomed and addressed as needed. When running for public office you should expect these moments, and how you respond to them is significant. Shutting them down by deleting or dismissing them is a bad idea.

A final consideration for the more ambitious candidate would be YouTube. If you or someone you know has some basic video editing skills, a short YouTube video that let’s voters get to know you could play well. You can embed the video to your website and/or Facebook page, and potentially get a lot of play our of it.

But beware: videos can backfire spectacularly (see below). The Internet is lousy with these epic fails. Before you know it, you video could go viral, getting 5 million views and an extended thrashing on “Tosh.0.”

As March 6 approaches, I’m sure we will see more aldermanic candidates experiment with social media. And I wish them the best of luck.

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