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Attention Candidates: Facebook and Twitter are Two-Way Communications Requiring Engagement, Not Advertising

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There's no doubt that social media are an important component of election campaigns in 2010. Tools like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 and its influence is felt at every level this season.

Here in Massachusetts, the social media divide helped decide the Coakley v Brown special election to fill Ted Kennedy's seat. So it surprises me that Massachusetts candidates still don't understand the power of social engagement to help or hurt their candidacy.

For example, Joe Chernov, a Massachusetts resident and blogger with more than 5,600 Twitter followers describes an incident where a lawn sign advertising Massachusetts State Auditor candidate Mary Z. Connaughton dislodged from a truck delivering signs and crashed into his car as he was travelling on a highway. The sign impaled his bumper, causing damage that someone needs to pay for.

The driver of the truck carrying the sign failed to stop but another motorist saw the incident and pulled over to help.

Chernov's assumption was that the driver who failed to secure the sign was working on Candidate Connaughton's behalf, so he reached out to the Connaughton campaign by email, Twitter, and Facebook and included photos of his damaged car.

When the Connaughton campaign failed to respond (removing the messages from Facebook), Chernov blogged it too in a post titled Hey @maryforauditor, there's a hole in my bumper #VoteRepair. He included images of his Facebook post and his damaged car on his blog.

This is just another example of a candidate, like Martha Coakley before her, who simply does not understand how to engage with people on social media. Twitter and Facebook are for two-way communications, not simply for broadcasting your latest endorsement or fundraiser.

When something like this breaks in real-time, it doesn't matter if it is a candidate for office, or a company, nonprofit, government agency, or any person or organization, the right thing is to respond. If you don't have an answer, say that and then promise to follow up. The recent issues with Toyota and BP were made worse because of lack of real-time engagement early on. Reaction speed is critical.

So how do you decide who gets a response and who gets ignored? There is no easy answer to this. Some people are just plain crazy, and you don't want to get dragged into dialogue with a psycho. What's important is to figure out who is thoughtful. In the Connaughton lawn sign incident, the person reaching out is respected in social media circles and reached out appropriately. He was certainly thoughtful.

Heck, Joe Chernov @jchernov has more than ten times @maryforauditor the number of Twitter followers as Mary Z. Connaughton, which should by itself get the campaign's attention.

The candidate's website says the "State Auditor is the person responsible for making sure your hard-earned tax dollars are spent appropriately. The position represents one of the most important checks and balances in our system of government, no matter who occupies the corner office, because the auditor doesn't report to the Governor or the Legislature, but only to you, the citizens of Massachusetts." Hello? Checks and balances? Well, as a Massachusetts voter, I care more about how she handles a citizen who has a valid complaint than what party she represents or how clever her television advertising is. In this regard, Mary Z. Connaughton blew it.

Candidates need to have people on their communications team who understand the implications of real-time engagement through social media. It is no longer a nice to have. Now it is essential for success.