A Policymaker’s Guide to Social Media

By Ana Beatriz Cholo

For an elected official, reaching out and engaging with constituents is one of the most important aspects of the job and social media can be an almost perfect tool. But with all the various platforms that exist and with new ones cropping periodically, it can get overwhelming.

What is the best way to go about it?

The first step is to think about who your target audience is, says Liliana Monge, a social media expert and co-founder of Sabio.LA, which works to increase the number of women and people of color in tech. It’s best to pick one or two social media channels and focus on making them a success.

Generally speaking, Facebook is a great way to reach out to constituents, but if you want to reach journalists or thought leaders, head to Twitter, Monge says. Women typically flock to Pinterest and Instagram and Snapchat is where you can find the younger crowd. YouTube is still ever popular and posting occasional videos should be a part of any social media plan for an elected official. Linkedin, on the other hand, is not the best way to reach constituents. Rather, it’s effective for partnering with business stakeholders and academic institutions. Monge says people often fail to see its potential, however, and don’t use it as much as they should.

“Linkedin a great way to develop your professional brand, talk about major initiatives and find support for your legislative agenda,” Monge said. “There are a lot of LinkedIn groups that you could connect with – small businesses, commerce, regional groups, chambers of commerce, educational partners like community colleges, universities.”

Facebook Live is the “cooler and funner” of what now exists in the social media world and is a way to engage with audiences in real time. It also casts a larger net than traditional Facebook posts. She suggests elected officials use Facebook Live prior to a public meeting as a method of previewing the event and to drive engagement. After the meeting, officials can use it to give updates and even answer questions. After all, not everyone can get to a physical location and this method is especially handy because the video is stored. Constituents can add comments even after the live feed has concluded, which gives the elected an opportunity to gather feedback.

“Social media is extremely important in running an election campaign and in engaging with one’s constituents,” says Laura Casas, President of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District. ” The Internet is the first place people look to obtain information about a candidate’s work experience.”

Casas, who has served as a college trustee since 2005, says social media is an essential part of a policymaker’s outreach toolkit. She relies on it to provide updates regarding “topical community issues.”

Downey Mayor Fernando Vasquez uses Facebook Live at a variety of events in Downey. He plays “reporter” and asks his constituents questions about their city while recording the interaction. In a city where the average age is 32, he knew he had to think outside the box and engage the community in a more productive way. For that, he hired a social media person so he could get more “millennial street cred,” he said laughing.

“I only had Facebook, but then I was criticized that I wasn’t “millennial enough” so I got Instagram, too.“

His social media hire, a recent college grad, does analytics that shows how their social media channels are performing. Vasquez is also presented with the latest hash tags each month. He said social media is also overtaking traditional advertising. In the past, his communications department would spend $2,000 for an ad in the weekly newspaper, but with that same amount of money he can receive 200,000 impressions from his two social media channels, Facebook and Instagram. He says he has a Twitter and Snapchat account, but doesn’t use them.

“I could barely keep up with Facebook and Instagram,” he said. “God bless anyone who’s doing all four of them.”

His pro tip for social media outings? Bring an extra charger or battery for your cell phone.

Monge says the younger demographic loves Snapchat, but that particular medium, in which photos stay up for 24 hours, can seem more daunting to elected officials. She advises they work with an intern familiar with Snapchat or look up demo videos on YouTube. “If you want to reach out and engage with a younger demographic you have to meet them where they are at.” One suggestion is to post a series of photos showing a day in the life of an elected official.

The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words proves why Instagram is a fantastic tool for communicating with the community. A quality photo of a job or street fair or some type of dedication ceremony with descriptive hashtags can capture the feeling of an event. For instance, posing with the owner of your town’s newest wine shop can capture a town’s business and civic pride.

Los Angeles councilmember Gil Cedillo has accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, along with his own website. He regularly uses e-blasts to communicate general information to his constituents. For breaking news and daily information, he mostly uses Facebook and Twitter.

Cedillo values social media and says that it provides individuals instant information, and “allows us to remain relevant.” As a fulltime policymaker, he also has the resources to hire a social media manager.

It’s useful to keep social media accounts current, he said. Information changes quickly, and if one waits to post something, it might become old news. As a councilmember, Cedillo said constituents expect him to make statements when tragedies happen and expect him have an opinion on current events.

“The rate at which information changes is also a pitfall,” Cedillo said. “This requires constant updating of information and a certain degree of fact checking. Stories are often catapulted into the spotlight, without thorough vetting of information. It requires investigative journalism.”

Monge says it’s important to be mindful of what you post. Post and tweet as if your grandmother and 15-year-old are paying attention.

“No alcohol, smoking, reckless activities,” she said. “Be cognizant of details that may be perceived negatively. Keep it PC.”

Riverside Community College District trustee Mary Figueroa learned this firsthand when she witnessed a fellow board member losing his reelection bid last fall for his indiscretion.

He sent out a tweet of a hooded hangman with the phrase “I’m Ready for Hillary.” He had been on the board for four years, but his ill-informed tweet ended up harming him politically.

“His tweet lost him the election,” she said. “Otherwise, he would still be sitting on the board.”

 

Ana Beatriz Cholo is a freelance journalist, photographer and activist based in Los Angeles.