While President Obama’s Twitter account (@BarackObama) has been managed by his staff for years, last month, the president took to the keyboard himself to wish everyone a happy Father’s Day, and has since generated quite a bit of attention for himself online. And Obama is not the only political figure harnessing the power of social media. Other well-known politicians such as Senator John McCain and Speaker of the House John Boehner use social platforms to post relevant articles and garner support for the latest legislation. Vice President Joe Biden jumped on-board with Twitter on July 4.
The uptick of social activity from the country’s political heavy hitters reinforces what PR professionals have known for a while – Twitter is a critical communications tool. That said, social media platforms are not simply new channels for disseminating messages.
They provide a means for two-way communication, as we saw during the first-ever Twitter Town Hall last Wednesday. The event allowed average American citizens to have their questions answered by President Obama; something only White House correspondents had the privilege of doing in the past. Americans were able to express their thoughts and concerns in a public forum other than elections, and participate in direct communication with the president for the first time.
As White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer explained, “We’ve entered a different information age where people get news and information in a different way then they did in the past. That’s why we’re doing this … its similar to what previous presidents did with the more traditional outlets.”
Here’s what the Twitter Town Hall accomplished:
- Captured the Mobile Audience – A staggering number of U.S. adults get information from sources other than traditional media. It’s estimated that 47% of all U.S. adults and nearly 70% of young adults age 18-29 consume news using a mobile device. Pfeiffer said before the Twitter Town Hall: “Our challenge is to [communicate information] in increments that can be consumed on mobile devices,” indicating that the Obama administration clearly recognizes this shift.
- Generated Buzz –Online and Elsewhere – Waiting for the six o’clock newscast to get the information we need is no longer sufficient for busy Americans, and thanks to social media, consuming news in real-time is easier than ever. Smack in the middle of the average person’s work day, nearly 65,000 questions were asked and more than 100,000 tweets were sent from all corners of the country, using the hashtag #askobama. The enormous response the town hall received, and the buzz it generated by the people who didn’t directly participate, is indicative of the power of social media. But it wasn’t just Twitter’s hundreds of millions of users buzzing about it. Traditional media also tuned in. The event was live on CNN and MSNBC, and many other news organizations wrote stories recapping the event, which included many of the president’s responses.
- Set the Stage for 2012 Elections – Participating in political conversation via social media becomes even more important with the 2012 presidential elections on the horizon. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2010, one in five Americans used Twitter or another social networking site for political purposes. Keeping in mind that Twitter users send 135 million more tweets per day than they did last year, it’s likely that the number of people talking about politics is on steady rise, too.
Obama set a precedent with his use of Facebook during the 2008 elections, and his use of Twitter could drastically change the game once again. Despite some critics believing the town hall to be just another chance for the president to repeat rehearsed statements, it engaged Americans in political discourse in a new way—and attracted media across multiple platforms. While it’s hard to gauge what’s next with politicians and presidential hopefuls on social media, it’s safe to say that platforms like Twitter will be an important component for communicating with voters and media in 2012.