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From Novelty to Mainstream – social media moves into the public affairs tool kit

When an organizer of a speech contest honoring the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address live tweeted from the chilly Dedication Day ceremonies in Gettysburg, within an hour she received a media inquiry asking for comment about the event. Not only did she get quoted in a story about Lincoln’s celebrated speech, but earned a sidebar in newsprint and online splashing details about the contest, which help boost participation.

The influence and impact of social media doesn’t have to be exemplified by Keith Olbermann’s suspension from ESPN to demonstrate the bearing it has in the public square or public affairs. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are no longer a modern novelty. And having a “platform” no longer simply means taking a position on issues. In public affairs and public relations, a presence on social media says you mean business and puts individuals and organizations into the game.

Whether you are selling a product, driving an issue, establishing a reputation, communicating with media and cultivating constituencies, using social media means you know where your audience is and you are willing to listen. More often than not, news stories are getting placed, issues are being debated and the dial is moving through social media interactions. You don’t need thousands of followers to have an impact, but you do need an established presence.

Social media played a role in the manhunt for accused cop-killer Eric Frein last fall. Early on, law enforcement became concerned when citizens started sharing real-time tactical information from police scanners on Twitter and Facebook. The district attorney quickly responded with a tweet of his own:

“Please do not post applications for comm center radio trans. If you can hear them he might overhear them. #officersafety”

That tweet, sent September 19, 2014, was retweeted 70 times and favorite 24 times by media, law enforcement and citizens.

A few years ago, social media was a taboo topic in many circles. The conservative and the cautious considered platforms like Twitter too spontaneous and too unpredictable to be considered a tactic that could move issues. A broadened presence on Pineterest and Instagram was too much work. Facebook was even risky. People can leave their comments! What scared people the most, some PR folks included, was the lack of control.

The transparency of social media didn’t scare State Representative Stephen Bloom (R-Cumberland) when he was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 2010. Instead, he made a commitment to live tweet legislative actions from the House floor. Nearly 10,000 tweets later, he has 2,771 followers. More importantly, he handedly won re-election in 2012 and 2014.

Like other communication tactics, social media must be used with discipline and control. Audiences must be built and loyalties must be established before you need them. Thoughtful planning and professional guidance can establish an effective social media presence that meets your goals and works for you when and where you need it.

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