The Texas Prosecutor, March-April 2017, Vol. 47, Issue 1

Why should elected officials use social media?

As district and county attorneys, our main job is to seek justice and serve the people in our communities. One great vehicle for educating citizens on how your office does that is through social media.

As elected officials, we are the only ones who can inform the public on what we do and how we are uniquely qualified to do it. And as the people holding those positions, we have access to all the data we need to keep the public informed because the incumbents.
    There are many different methods to disseminate the information generated in a prosecutor office. We can speak at local community events or civic organizations; the local media could run a story about the office; we can even send out press releases. The biggest flaw with these methods is that someone else controls them. What if no one invites us to speak? What if the media isn’t interested in running a story and doesn’t care about a press release?
    Social media is an excellent medium to get information to the public. It is inexpensive and we get to determine the content. Not like TV, radio, or the newspaper where I might give an interview on a topic, the reporter puts the story together, and later I watch, read, or listen to the story and it doesn’t convey the message I had planned. Or worse yet, we might spend time carefully drafting a statement for the press, and the statement is never even used.
    With social media, we determine the message. We determine the frequency. We determine the public image we want people to see. We have total control of what we put out there for the citizens of our communities to hear.

Types of social media
Any Internet-based site where an individual determines the content and makes the content available for others can be considered social media. If you are unfamiliar with the various social media platforms, they include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Google+, and even YouTube.
    I personally have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn accounts, plus a YouTube channel, and I just recently started SnapChat. I have experimented with all of them and they each have advantages and disadvantages. If the goal is to document what you are doing using pictures, then Instagram and SnapChat are the best. LinkedIn is ideal for maintaining a business profile and communicating with your professional network. I have not had much luck with Twitter, even though I have tried many different strategies.
    In my experience, Facebook is the best outlet for communicating with the public. The average Facebook user is a voter and actively involved in his community. Facebook users are more likely to appreciate the content you provide as well as be engaged with your page. That said, Instagram and YouTube are also useful tools to complement a Facebook page. Plus, the pictures and videos you post on Facebook can also be re-posted on Instagram and YouTube so you are disseminating the same information on different platforms and reaching wider audiences.
    I started my Facebook page the day I was sworn into office. I originally hired a social media firm to handle everything, but I quickly realized that as an elected official, my needs were much different from a commercial business, so I took over all my social media outlets a few months later. Because I primarily use Facebook, I try to post once a day, which gives me the opportunity to communicate something positive about our office on a regular basis. There are many different opinions on how often you should post, and it depends in part on the platform, but as long as you are consistent and post relevant content, people will respond.
    I should note that what you post will be a function of the type of profile or page you create. If you opt for an official “Office” page on Facebook, then the content must adhere to office policies and will be subject to open records requests. An Office page’s content will be very different from what you post for a political “re-elect me” page. On a political page, you can still post information about the office you hold, but you can also create posts on politics, social issues, and your position on an issue in the news. I decided on a political page because I wanted the freedom to create as much content as possible and not be limited by county policy. Of course, with a political page, any costs associated with the page are my responsibility.
    I use social media for three main purposes: to educate the public, to reach other media outlets with stories, and to assist in my re-election to office. Here’s a little bit about each of those goals.

Educating the public
Our job is to serve the public. This means many different things, but it includes keeping the public informed. In our 24-7 news society, people are constantly looking for information. If an elected official isn’t providing it, the public wonders why not. Social media gives us a platform where we can satisfy people’s demand for information.
    For example, game rooms are an issue in our county. I’ve used Facebook to educate the public about the issue and get people’s feedback. As you might guess, some say that game rooms are not a problem and that law enforcement shutting them down is just the government trying to get money. However, the vast majority let me know what problems game rooms cause. I also used Facebook to tell the public what we are doing to limit the negative effects of game rooms. Although we may not ultimately be successful, social media allows us to tell citizens that we are doing something about the crime in our community.
    I also post about how many cases we have resolved in a given time period or about a specific type of case (for example, DWI). I also regularly post an Employee of the Week, where I acknowledge the contributions of a specific staffer. When we have a trial, I post the results. I also periodically talk about commissioners court if there is an interesting agenda item.
    One of the biggest things people overlook is to share a post from someone else. I consistently share posts from the Ector County District Attorney or local sheriff. This not only provides my followers with valuable information, but it also exposes my Facebook page to different people.
    Remember that the same people who read your online posts also make up the jury pool. Incorporating information about the criminal justice system as part of your social media presence may benefit your office at the next jury trial. Of course, don’t post about pending cases, but a post about how DWIs effect the community and how we need stronger sentences to combat the problem is certainly fair game, and voters will appreciate the information.
    One of the things I have done is let people know how selective we are concerning the cases we prosecute: how we screen every case, reject those that we can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt, and prosecute only those people we believe are guilty of the offense. All of this is true, but we couldn’t say any of it when selecting a jury.

Reaching conventional media
Another benefit is that the traditional media searches for stories via social media. If you post something about your office, there is a chance the local media will either run a story based solely on your post, or a reporter may call for an interview on that topic. I have had this happen a couple of times a month since I started using Facebook. And because I provided nearly all the content for the story, the message conveyed by the local media story is almost identical to my own.
    I have found that a Facebook post can be more effective than a press release. When we started the “no refusal” program to obtain blood search warrants for those suspected of DWI, I sent out a traditional press release and held a press conference. A few local media outlets attended and ran stories that day, and that was the end of it. I also used Facebook to promote the program, and not only did the media run follow-up stories on it, but I was also able to communicate directly with the public. Several citizens asked questions about the program, and I was able to answer them and alleviate some of their concerns. Plus, we were able to promote local law enforcement, which is always a positive.

Re-election
Social media is an excellent way to position yourself for re-election. If you are consistently posting content about your office, the public has constant access to you and has built a relationship with you through your online presence. It’s like going door to door—but with a much wider and more effective reach.
    If an opponent tries to attack your record, you need only point to all the content you have provided on social media. If you have been giving the public accurate information about all aspects of your office, there should be more than enough data that will counter almost any argument an opponent will make. The more information you can provide to the community, the more they will trust you, and the more they trust you, the more likely they will vote for you. (Remember, you are an attorney and a politician—not a good combination on the trust meter in the public’s eyes!)

Additional guidelines for posting
Don’t worry too much about whether you’ll have enough content to post regularly. It is amazing how much subject matter you can create once you start thinking about it. Say you go to a Rotary Club meeting—that’s a post. If you speak at a community function—that’s a post. Describing some duty of your office—that’s a post. You will find content literally everywhere.
    Just remember, this isn’t a personal page where you tell friends and family about the new rosebush you planted in your front yard. It is a professional page whose main goal is to provide useful information to the general public. No offense, but the average voter doesn’t care about your garden. Your posts, regardless of the outlet you use, need to be professional but also personal. The post should not be cold and distant—you want readers to relate to you. Think of it as just talking with someone over a business lunch: You would be cordial and you would provide useful information but not personal details.
    A typical post should be short. This isn’t a blog, although you could maintain a blog for longer posts and put links to the blog on Instagram or Facebook. You should have enough information to make the point but not so much to bore the reader. A good post has enough information so the reader will understand but will also want to ask questions. The reader’s engagement is your goal. The more engaged a reader is, the more he or she is involved in your success. People want to feel that they know you and can relate to you.
    If the information you want to convey will take more than a few sentences, consider linking to an article that explains the message, or create a blog post and link to it rather than posting something that reads like a court brief. Every month I write a blog post where I explain what we accomplished that month. The blog entry is usually about 500 words, way too long for a Facebook post, so I just give a very short summary on my Facebook page and link to the full blog post. The summary provides enough information that people know we did something and if they want more info, they can click the link.

Make time to respond
Once you start engaging readers, be prepared for negative comments. Unless you won the last election with 100 percent of the vote, not everyone wants you in office. Do not argue with a reader in the comments section. Everyone has a right to his opinion. One of the great things about social media is exercising our free speech. Remember, while people have the absolute right to express their opinions, if they are rude, vulgar, or just hateful, you have the right to delete their comments on your post. They can exercise their free speech on their own posts.
    Think of your social media posts like a town hall meeting. The goal is to inform the public and answer questions. You will certainly want to answer someone’s legitimate questions in a timely manner, but you will have to decide if a negative comment is worth a response. Personally, I will respond to a negative comment if the poster made either a misstatement of the law or an incorrect assumption. Most of the time, this is met with a positive response. On occasions where an individual just wants to argue, I respond no further. Other readers will appreciate your replies, even to negative comments, because that means you are willing to listen and engage, even if you disagree.
    Managing a social media presence doesn’t have to be time-consuming. I personally enjoy creating content and interacting with people, so I spend more time on social media than is required (just ask my wife). Most people could spend about 10 minutes a day creating and posting something. I try to create as many entries as possible at one time, then schedule them to be posted throughout the week. This gives me the flexibility to make changes if need be but also lets me consistently post content, even when I’m busy on other tasks.
    The one thing you will need to make time for at least once a day is to engage with people on social media. If someone asks a question, you need to provide an answer, even if the answer is you don’t know or you can’t tell him because of confidentially concerns. If someone asked you a question at a town hall, you wouldn’t just ignore him, would you? People expect answers to questions in a reasonable time. I usually try to answer someone’s question right on the post so other people can see the response. Occasionally, I have used Facebook’s instant message feature if I felt I couldn’t share an answer publicly.

Conclusion
The time we spend on social media creating content and informing voters will be time well-spent. Since I started using Facebook, I have had more people come up to me at the grocery store, in restaurants, and even at the office just to say how they appreciate the content and that they wished every elected official would share information about his office the way I do. Although it can take time, I certainly believe it is worth the investment. I can personally attend only so many civic organizations meetings, so many lunches, and so many other events, but I can reach a nearly unlimited number of people via social media.