The next chief of Britain’s MI6 spy agency faces the possibility of government probe after a London newspaper revealed that his wife had posted personal family information – everything from family photographs to the location of their home -- on the social networking website, FaceBook. Carelessly publishing personal information -- which even the average 15-year old knows to omit -- exposes the man set to be the next real life version of “M” from the James Bond movie franchise to kidnapping and extortion.
As a political strategist, the incident made me consider some advice that I have given to political clients on the issue of FaceBook. How do your own candidates or representatives stack up against the following?
1) Get aboard already. Anyone who has attended any recent political event will notice that most of the people deeply engaged in political life are old. With few exceptions, this is not the demographic you, the politician, are going to reach on FaceBook. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be on it. Because the reality is that these people are going to die relatively soon, and you don’t want your career to be buried along with them. The younger generation gets its information from the Internet, not from newspapers or television.
2) Don’t be a creep. By this, I mean that no politician should sign up for a FaceBook page and then proceed to just sit around idling in cyberspace. It’s creepy. It’s the equivalent of going to a bar and leering at the girls, rum and Coke in hand, from your perch in the corner. Inactivity gives the impression that you either don’t know what you’re doing, are hopelessly conceited and unreachable, or simply incapable of normal human interaction. People won’t think, “Oh, he’s just busy.” Rather, they’ll think, “What a self-centered jackass!” You’re not the King holding court – you’re a public servant who has elected to carve out a presence on one of the most democratizing tools the world has ever known. Voters don’t want to be lorded over - they want someone they can hang out with. That’s why candidates from Ronald Reagan to Sarah Palin and George Bush have resonated and connected with voters. Give some “gifts”, write on some “walls”. Wish some of your “friends”/voters a happy birthday – perhaps in a status line update. Being a normal, decent person goes a long way in politics.
3) Be who you want to be. The best thing the Internet has going for it is that you can be who you want to be, even if it bears little resemblance to you in “real life”. It’s a lot easier to hide your flaws online. Some people are cooler on FaceBook than they are in person, and this phenomenon can work to a politician’s advantage. Online perception becomes reality because most voters aren’t going to go out of their way to meet you. So carve out the image you want using notes, photos, videos and other tools. There is no media filter to stop or hinder you, or any message you wish to convey to your voters.
4) Keep private information off your page. You might not be the next head of MI6, but you may simply be in a relationship. But either the nature or the parties involved in that relationship could experience several incarnations over the course of your public mandate. I always tell my political clients to leave that “relationship” box blank – no matter how “married” you might be. One politician friend went through a phase when his relationship status would change about half-dozen times each week – running the gamut from “married”, to “it’s complicated”, to “single”, then back to “married”. No one is asking you to do this. So unless you find that it is somehow of benefit to your image, and are trying to strategically carve out a Charlie Wilson or Silvio Berlusconi type of playboy reputation for yourself - perhaps in an attempt to lower moral expectations among your voters – then just omit that section altogether.
Just because the internet tells you to fill something in, doesn’t mean that you have to.
5) Don’t be annoying. Anyone who uses FaceBook knows that nothing you do on the site is “subtle”. It’s intrusive by nature, and everything you do is going to be shoved into the newsfeed of each of your “friends”/voters, and hence straight down their throats. It’s the equivalent of yelling across a crowded room. So try not to overload people. One politician I know was updating his status every five minutes, and sending constant invites to the fan club he created for himself on the site. Each time I hit “ignore” on his fan club invite, he would re-send it to me as though I had simply erred. It was almost like a robot was running his FaceBook account. I finally succumbed to the torture in a moment of weakness and joined his fan club, only to then be bombarded by “fan mail” messages he would send out through the group multiple times each day. End result: Total block. This person is not this annoying in real life, but on FaceBook he’s a menace.
6) Don’t get into fights. There are proper forums in which you can have it out with people if you’re a public official: your office, television, radio, town halls, parliament… There are also inappropriate venues for such things: seedy parking lots, pubs, and FaceBook comment threads.
It isn’t all that uncommon for reckless FaceBook use to cause problems for political types. During the 2008 presidential race, GOP candidate Rudy Giuliani’s daughter created a media storm when she joined the FaceBook group of her father’s rival, Barack Obama. Then Obama speechwriter, Jon Favreau, was busted groping the breast of a life-size Hillary Clinton cardboard cutout in a photo posted on FaceBook, while a buddy pretended to pour beer into her mouth. FaceBook can be a useful political weapon – and following these rules will at least help them keep the blade pointed outward.