How Should Elected Officials Use Twitter?

My husband loves USA Today (no offense to him or the paper, but it’s mostly because of the colors and graphics). A few weeks ago, he called me at work to ask if I’d seen their story “More governors finding Twitter tweets sweet.” (Background: This is relevant to me since I oversee social media for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick among other things)

I found the paper and eagerly flipped through it. It’s always great to be recognized for our work and this was no exception. But, I’ve got to admit that I was a little disappointed when I got to the article. I don’t mean to begrudge the author. He’s got an audience to write for and limited space. But, I think he missed a couple of important points.

How we stacked up.

There was a graphic on the print version that rated the “Top 5” Governors on Twitter with essentially this info (numbers are follower count):

– Arnold Schwarzenegger – 1,609,285
– Bobby Jindal – 37,147
– Tim Pawlenty – 13,317
– Jennifer Granholm – 12,703
– Deval Patrick – 9,100

Sure, our @massgovernor account was still in the top 5 and the others all deserve to be recognized for their embracing of social media tools and the work it takes to maintain them, but…

What about the social part ?

The rating was based solely on follower count.

While it sometimes drives me crazy when people think others should use social media the exact same way they do, I do believe that a lot of the benefit of social media come from the social part. We’ve spent a lot of time integrating Twitter into our customer/constituent services functions. We respond to tweets. The Governor tweets directly from his blackberry and sees responses incorporated in constituent feedback. We integrate tweets into input on public policy. We use them to help understand what people need from us online and off.

I would have liked to have seen some exploration of that “stuff.”

A Governor or a Politician?

Two of the “Top 5” are managed by the governors’ political operations rather than as their official (i.e. within government) accounts.

I’m not saying one way is better than the other, but there’s a difference in how social media can/should be used in those spaces. Within an official office, they can be an extension of outbound communications, constituent feedback and service, represent the official position on issues, serve all people regardless of political affiliation, etc.. A political action committee generally has more freedom to engage in debates and discussions based on opinions, encourage people to fund-raise and rally, and maybe be a little more ‘bold’ (and thus more interesting?).


What do you think? How should elected officials really be graded on their use of Twitter and other social media tools? Is it an important distinction to folks if a tool is being used by their governor’s office or by their political committee? Does it matter to people who aren’t in the weeds of this stuff like me?

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Adriel Hampton

Sadly, Brad, most reporters don’t know how to use Twitter either. And the only reason my gov, Schwarznegger, has so many followers is because he was on the SUL. I think strategy is very key, and so is whether an account is used to promote the mission of an office or solely the career of a politician. Does it matter to folks who aren’t in the weeds? Not sure. But, I know people get tired of political spam, which is what a campaign-style tweetsteam can quickly become. That said, Gov Schwarzenegger and his team do seem to have a pretty good integrated strategy, and I also like what Gov Patrick’s team does.
Question: Do you do anything to increase the follower count, or is that all follower-initiated?

Brad Blake

Thanks Adriel. Yes, I agree Schwarzenegger and his people do a great job. They could easily rest on their laurels because he’s going to attract followers regardless, but they keep plugging away and set a strong example. I actually reached out to them when we were first starting our account and they were very helpful.

We don’t do anything to actively recruit followers. We did find when we started following people back who follow us that our count went up, but we really do that so people can direct message us if they have a more private question/need. We do have in our “policy” (last bullet) that we might reach out to people who aren’t following us, but honestly we haven’t had the time. Any suggestions on what we might/should be doing on that front? We don’t want followers just for the sake of numbers…but I think a lot of people in the state and beyond might be on Twitter and not know we’re here and engaging.

One thing people might find helpful is that we’ve started to launch a series of social media toolkits. Here’s the twitter one (PDF).

Adriel Hampton

I think proactive following can be good (if you’re going to be active on the channel, it’s worth letting people know you’re there), but it is time consuming. I’ve sketched out a few strategies for growing relevant networks on the GovSocMed wiki, and also added a link to your toolkits 🙂

Alexander B. Howard

Hey, Brad. G’day from Washington, where we have snow like Massachusetts this week.

I agree that ranking by follower count is shallow, at best, and naive about the impact of the SUL, at worst. Adriel is on top of that. I’d posit that looking at response to voters, use of the account to share links to services or news, sharing pictures and soliciting feedback or sentiment on policy are all much more thoughtful metrics to grade usage upon. Digging into actual engagement is critical. Politicians and their staff have understood how to broadcast for decades, first on radio, then on TV. The Internet is different. Two way conversations are tougher but also hold more promise for direct citizen to representative engagement, along with one to many interactions. When I look at elected officials and their tweets, I’m always looking for that simply switch: are they broadcasting or engaging?

John Moore


I am mid-way through my 2nd round of experiments with political accounts and will say that the vast majority, nearly 100%, of the accounts are for one way push-style communications. While my post will be coming in a couple of days I would go so far as to say that no high-level politician yet fully appreciates the value of embracing social channels.
Is this a problem? Yes, and no. @MassGovernor does a great job because YOU get it. Deval may as well but his tweets are generally 1-way push communications. The two way dialog coming from you. I am still waiting for a Governor, Senator, or other high-level official that is willing to take me, your average citizen, up on a direct dialog. yes, a little challenge for the Governor. 🙂
Follower count is a horrible metric and I would actually prefer to see someone use a tool like Klout when they report these metrics. Klout, while not perfect, attempts to take into account reach, follower count, dialog, and provides a score from 0 to 100. No grading on the curve.


Brad Blake

@Alex – good to hear from you! We’ve basically had no snow here. We got a dusting the other day despite very assured forecasts that we were getting a blizzard. Anyway, you bring up a great point that politicians and their staff have understood how to broadcast for decades. This is all very disruptive to a lot of them. I think that’s a good thing, but it does take a lot of time to manage social media well. But, we can’t expect politicians and their staff to completely jump into this new realm because the traditional media does still matter. As you know, here in Massachusetts we have a very…um…”active” press. Regardless of how much you connect with citizens directly, a lot of people still read the papers and watch the morning news. For every 20 minutes you ask a traditional communications person to spend responding to a tweet, that’s 20 minutes they’re not spending answering the calls from 8 reporters who are chomping to go with a story that might be inaccurate. So, it’s a balance and it’s all about finding people within the organization who aren’t necessarily your communications professionals to respond. We’ve made some great strides in that area, but it takes constant vigilance.

Brad Blake

@John – Thanks or the compliment and I’ll be interested to see what you come up with. Your comment brought to mind a few things that I struggle with and think about…some of which we may have discussed before that you’re probably already considering or aware of. But, hopefully there’s some brilliance in here somewhere…. 😉

– Governor Patrick gets between 1,000 and 2,000 pieces of correspondence from residents a week including phone calls, letters, emails, in-person drop-ins, and blog comments. For about six months now, we’ve also included tweets. Every week, he gets a summary report of all of that correspondence which includes samples (and they’re not sugar-coated) of actual emails, letters, etc. He responds directly as often as he can, but as you can imagine, it’s a balance between what gets attention. What’s more worthy of response? A hand-written letter? An email? A tweet? We’re still struggling with that because it’s tough to say a tweet that someone sent off in 10 seconds that the person maybe could have answered by doing a bit of research is equal to an email that someone took a half hour to craft and did research into the issue to present a point about what they might be concerned with. But, at the same time, that tweet can likely be responded to quicker, as well and has the potential to reach more people. It’s a balance.

– The governor has replied directly to some tweets. It’s not often, but it’s been done. We also follow back everyone as a rule so we can Direct Message. So ‘everyone’ doesn’t see some of our engagement. I know that somewhat diminishes the public benefit of twitter, but in some cases we’ve felt it’s more appropriate.

– I think when analyzing use of any one tool, like Twitter, it’s important to look at all the ways they’re communicating in addition to the traditional ways I mentioned above. Is Twitter even really good for a robust “dialogue”? For example, the Governor takes questions from people on YouTube and he or his staff answer them. He does Town Hall meetings across the state and talks directly with citizens and we post and share video and try to get follow-up discussion on our blog. We’ve done budget forums with an online Ning-based discussion where the governor and others were having a lot of back-and-forth with residents and where, at the end, a group of those residents came in and met with the governor to summarize all the dialogue that happened during the course of the forums. The governor posts to our blog and wants to see the feedback comments. In fact, he just posted Wednesday about his new jobs bill and a couple of weeks ago about the state budget he submitted. No comments on either yet. Of course, that raises a whole other issue of how you integrate all of these things and drive people to them, encourage thoughtful feedback, etc.

– When looking at elected officials like a governor, I think people should take into account others in their administration and how they’re using the tools. We have a lot of folks on Twitter, out there blogging, etc.. Some do it better than others. Some reply more than others, etc.. Point being, though, that for a large organization like government, I think decentralization is key and that’s what we’ve been really pushing for. Personally, I’m not so sure that I want the person at the very top getting pulled into the weeds too much. That ol’ balance thing again…

Will watch for your post!

John Moore

Brad, great comments and dead on with all of your points. It is a balance and one that you will never get 100% right, or at least not to the point that everyone is satisfied. That is true for high-level officials and for executive teams in larger companies. There is too much correspondence, too much information, to cover it all.

On a related note, does anyone have a full list of the Governor Twitter accounts handy? I would love to do the Klout analysis I mentioned and post a more balanced score of how each is doing.


Sam Allgood

To me, there are two significant questions to measure the effectiveness of any social media tools:

1) Is it informing constituents that would not otherwise be uninformed?
2) Is it impacting policy decisions made by the governors / other public officials?

The 2nd can be sort of a two-edged sword; e.g., are policy decisions being impacted in a way that they should not be? What I mean by this is this: is input received via social media considered in the appropriate context of the bigger picture of all input (where constituency opinion, not legality, is an appropriate driving force). I foresee that it could be possible, hopefully not likely, that politicians get so enthralled and engaged with the new technology that opinions received through this fairly new social media gets overweighted because of the limited amount of input through other channels.

I hesitate to even mention that consideration because it seems so obvious … yet I have seen very little written about it.

Evaluating Twitter solely on number of followers is like our ranking system here on GovLoop, which is driven by how much you participate with only one item (number of friends) having any sense of being rated by others. A meaningful ranking would have to include some form of voting on content system.

It reminds me of a quote that I love: Action is no substitute for Production.

Suesan Danesh

Thanks for your post Brad – it is very timely as more and more Gov departments (here in Canada) enter the twitterverse. I like Sam’s comment which point to defining and understanding the objectives of the tool/initiative. Not all forays into SM have the same objective and at the end of the day they will be evaluated against those (whatever they may be) – looking forward to reading more thoughts on the subject!

Steve Lunceford

As the story was written using some data that professor Kathy Gill from University of Washington pulled together along with her students (also using GovTwit and TweetCongress data to help), I pinged her on Twitter @kegill about this thread. She may have some interesting thoughts to add…

Kathy Gill

Brad, I’m quoted in that article and I agree with you 100% — follower counts aren’t the end-all, be-all metric. I also talked with Ben about the challenges of “governing” versus “campaigning.”

John – you can always find good lists at GovTwit, ya know. I have a Twitter list of governors and a more detailed (annotated) list:

Governors On Twitter – semi-regularly updated page with information about governors in the Twitter space

“”>Twitter List: governorsontwitter

Twitter List: Governors2010 – campaign accounts

Kathy Gill

Oh, John … Klout isn’t the only analytical tool. It has issues, too. They all do, IMO. Klout, as y’all must realize, weighs follower counts heavily.

John Moore

Thanks Kathy. I am going to use your page to gather accounts and I will share the ratings, based upon a wider set of dimensions. Stay tuned as this will be interesting (I think).


Kathy Gill

Brad, I’m finalizing a chapter on political and government use of Twitter for a book on best practices. If you have a few minutes, I’d like to talk to you a bit more about Gov. Patrick’s social media strategy and add y’all to that chapter. I’m @kegill and [email protected].

John Moore

Yes, I know, but not sure of a tool that does not weigh follower count heavily. If anyone knows of one please pass along as I will use that instead of Klout. For a first pass, however, it is better than follower count alone. Thanks Kathy.

Kathy Gill

I really like TweetStats — yeah, I know the developer and he’s in Seattle … 😉

TweetStats doesn’t make a judgment for you — it gives you a visual snapshot so that you can made the judgment. Interested in RT rate? It’s there. Interested in @replies? It’s there.

In the book, we are using TweetStats, TwitterGrader and Klout.

Brad Blake

@Sam – totally with you and loved how you summed it up into two questions. I think it surprises people sometimes when they come to me because they want to start a social media account of some sort and I ask them, “why?” and “what are you trying to accomplish with it?”. It’s a balance (there’s that word again) with jumping in to try it out and having clear goals with what you want to do with it. Of course, sometimes it takes jumping in and getting some small successes and attention before you can get buy-in in a larger organization to use it for more robust engagement…

Brad Blake

@Kathy and @Steve – Glad to ‘meet’ you both and thanks for connecting us all Steve. Kathy, I’ll get in touch with you shortly.

Brad Blake

@suesan – You’re in Ottawa, yes? I saw (according to Wikipedia, anyway), that “The provincial government of Ontario’s website is bilingual.” Does that extend to your social media communications? I can’t keep up with all of this stuff in one language. I can’t imagine two!

Suesan Danesh

Yes Brad, I am in Ottawa and work for the federal government where the comms policy of the gov of Canada clearly states that we must communication in English and French (drawing from Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms and Official Languages Act)..so short answer is yes it extends to Soc Media. Gov SM initiatives must have include a strategy for meeting Official Languages requirements – for example: two Twitter accounts (FR/ ENG) or two FR/ENG tweets from a single account?…There are some very engaged communications professionals in the Public Service here that are sorting out recommended practices on these and other issues that are particular to us in Canada. I really appreciate the resources and the networking/exchanges/discussions on GovLoop – there is real value in sharing insights.