If elected officials really want to engage their constituents through social media, they need to ditch the fear factor and create a real two-way dialogue online. That was the advice from three local elected officials who kicked off C&E’s 2011 CampaignTech conference Thursday.

When Pepper Pike City Councilwoman Jill Miller Zimon ran for local office in Ohio, she was the first candidate the city had ever seen with a website, much less a social media presence. But Zimon, who’s also a political blogger, made new media a centerpiece of her campaign’s outreach efforts, even running Facebook ads in a city where close to 40 percent of the voting population was 65 and over.    

“Just don’t fear it,” said Zimon. “You’re not going to break the computer … We need to be bringing this down to a level where people aren’t afraid of this, but are embracing it.”   

The discussion, moderated by Huffington Post/AOL’s Peter Cherukuri, zeroed in on political leadership in the digital era and what local lawmakers across the country are doing to communicate and engage with constituents once in office.

The real challenge for elected officials, said Maryland state Sen. Chris Shank (R), is figuring out how to use Facebook and other social media channels to have a conversation with voters and constituents, rather than just utilizing it as another mouthpiece for a pet issue or a campaign.

“I am yet to be convinced that Facebook and other social media channels are being effectively utilized and utilized to the best of their potential,” said Shank. “We’re still trying to figure that out as elected officials.”    

One way to do it in real time, said Shank, is making use of Facebook as a forum during legislative debates or even during committee mark-ups in Annapolis. That’s something Virginia Del. David Englin says he and other younger legislators have begun to do in earnest at the state capitol in Richmond, too.

“I’ll often tweet the blow by blow of a floor debate,” Englin said. “Lots of us use Facebook on the floor … It’s a real-time way to have a conversation with your constituents.”