Social Media and Politics

Image: Mashable

When I was a kid, it was practically impossible to get away with being naughty and even harder to lie my way out of it when I'd done something wrong. My grandmother, who babysat me after school while my mom was at work, would knowingly say, "the truth always finds it's way out", and my mother, ever her daughter, would build on that with, "tell the truth, because you’ll be found out eventually." My husband’s mother always told him growing up, “don’t do anything that you wouldn’t mind being splashed on the front page of your local newspaper.” Wise women–all of them. And now, more than ever, aphorisms to live by.

Social Media makes it hard to get away with anything. It's in our nature to want to exaggerate or pretend to be something we aren't to advance an agenda, but today’s world is a tricky place to do that. Both individuals and organizations need to be careful what they disseminate on websites and other outposts because people are paying attention, and, let's face it, most of us dislike being lied to. It's human nature to want to call out falsehoods when we see them and social media gives us the perfect outlet to do that. I think we feel just as strongly, if not more, about hypocrisy, lying's ugly sibling. So why then, aren’t people more careful about what they do behind closed doors or about representing themselves to be something they aren’t?

I am convinced that most people–regardless of their age–haven’t fully grappled with the reach of the Internet yet. Social media is still fairly new and technology in general is moving faster and changing our lives in more ways than we can wrap our heads around. (It might even outpace us soon; Kevin Kelly's latest book What Technology Wants has great insight into this.) Attitudes, while slowly changing in regards to what’s acceptable to publicize and what isn’t (and what it all means about a person’s character), still haven't adjusted to the reality of the information age in which every detail of our lives is suddenly fair game.

A large part of the job in communications used to entail controlling the message and the public personae of the leaders that we represented. Thanks to the explosion of social media, reputation management has become somewhat more challenging. We are all now public figures–the CEOs of our own lives and reputations–even when we're not officially working, and it can be difficult to keep things off the record. Anything we say or do in private can easily be used to besmirch us.

The people who are struggling the most with this are the boomer and x generations. Millenials, on the other hand–who aren’t running the world yet, but soon will be–have grown up with technology and have much different attitudes vis a vis their privacy and what is acceptable to be made public. They may face judgment from hiring managers as they navigate the shoals of today’s workplace but that will most certainly change over time as they and their peers move into management positions. All in all, it's not really an issue for them. They just don’t criticize others’ “off the clock” behavior as harshly as previous generations. Consider for a moment that Bill Clinton had to deny inhaling, yet it’s common knowledge that Barack Obama, who enjoyed large amounts of support in the last general election from young voters, not only smoked-but publicly enjoyed-marijuana and cocaine.

Speaking of politicians, it's only a matter of time once someone announces their intention to run for public office before something gets surfaced from their past and splashed all over the Internet; social media is amplifying the reach and impact of our desire to throw stones at people who live in glass houses.

Christine O'Donnell seems to be this election cycle's poster child for negative press. Why? Ms. O’Donnell has been very public with her views in the past and there's lots of fodder available to lampoon her with when human nature rears it's ugly head. Consider the most recent story that Gawker published about Ms. O’Donnell’s antics at a Halloween party a few years back. Whether or not you agree with their approach, it's clear what Gawker's intent was behind publishing it: they saw it as an opportunity to call out hypocritical behavior. (Plus, Gawker was very upfront about their profit motives–no hypocrisy there.)

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for the media strategy session regarding this incident, especially since Ms. O'Donnell's communications team should have known that there is footage of her (courtesy of Bill Maher) saying explicitly that she doesn’t celebrate Halloween because it’s a paganistic and satanic holiday. Team O’Donnell’s response–that Gawker was being sexist–was a red herring that just added lies to the hypocrisy (Gawker has lambasted many male public figures for their regressions too and can hardly be called sexist).

People make choices that others question, or that they regret, or they change their positions over time. I’m not saying that they shouldn't run for elected positions because these facts may come to light through social media; we'd be hard put to find applicants for the job if that were the case. I’m merely pointing out that it’s more important then ever to be honest about who you are, and what you've done, as the truth will eventually find its way out. At the very least, you should fess up when it does and not try to detract from what’s really going on. Social media shines a light on authenticity, or lack thereof.

Which brings me to my final thought. I wonder how my colleagues in PR deal with the challenge of managing the reputations of politicians who run on public platforms that are disconnected from their private actions and behavior. There seems to be lots of them on both sides of the aisle. If I were Ms. O'Donnell's Communications Director, I'd have wanted to know the truth ahead of time so I could figure out how to spin it in a way that didn't make her look even less credible.

But then, I'm not Ms. O'Donnell's Communications Director.

UPDATE: Wisconsin voters are sending 39 year old Sean Duffy, a contestant on the sixth season of The Real World, to congress. NY Mag wryly points out:
Kids, take this as the inspiring lesson it should be: Don’t let anyone scare you into thinking there are embarrassing things you can do on television that, given the right amount of time and effort, you can not live down.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at 

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