The rules of engagement on Twitter

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Knowing when to strike back is half the battle.


Quick-tempered staffers locked in battle via Twitter is hardly the stuff of campaign legend just yet, but spats in the Twitter-verse—either spontaneous or calculated—are becoming increasingly common.          

The reality, warn online strategists, is that plenty of damage can be done in 140 characters, especially if a candidate gets dragged into the fray. And at the very least, exchanges on Twitter can turn into an unwanted distraction for a campaign.   

With that in mind, here are some quick guidelines to help your campaign avoid unnecessary #Twitterwars and instead positively engage followers.

1. Talk before you Tweet

If someone lobs a rhetorical grenade at your candidate or campaign via Twitter, the worst response is a hasty one. Nasty tweets aren’t call for a senior strategy meeting, but if someone within your campaign thinks the content of a tweet is worth a response, than it’s at least worth a brief conversation before a staffer fires it off.   

Remember that responding to whatever’s out there on your Twitter feed means potentially elevating an attack or an issue, says Mike Panetta, a strategist at Beekeeper Group.

“I think the first thing to do is to assess who’s making the allegations,” advises Panetta. “If it’s somebody credible, then the campaign should likely respond with the other side of the story—a correct fact and a link with more information. If it’s some crack pot going off on you, it’s better to just ignore it.”

Given that Twitter is a “heat-of-the-moment medium,” it’s best to wait and cool down before responding—“firing off” is never the answer, Panetta says.

Progressive PST’s Beth Becker, who manages social media accounts for campaigns, says for the most part, responding to negative tweets should be a rarity. Most followers or voters tweeting negative comments are often trying to simply solicit attention.

“Probably 95 percent of the time, my recommendation is to ignore it,” Becker says. “Why waste campaign time and energy on the trolls, who are just looking for attention, really? It’s a lot easier to get on with your business.”

But if it’s a genuine question or even an accusation from a voter, Republican online strategist Vincent Harris says a response is, with little exception, necessary. Understanding that social media is a two-way street, he says, the worst thing a campaign can do is remain unresponsive to legitimate comments and critiques.  

2. Get the timing right

Once your staff decides a tweet is worthy of a response, it should come relatively quickly. Panetta says if the attack is a serious one––involving corruption, lack of integrity or the moral fiber of the candidate––address it promptly once the staff develops a rational and professional response.

“If I had to give a piece of advice to all campaigns, it’s that you should never tweet angry,” Panetta says. “It’s archived. Someone can easily grab a screenshot of it.”

Understand that bloggers and opponents are likely watching your Twitter feed carefully and looking out for inappropriate tweets from noted staffers.

“[Staffers] should never say anything they don’t want to be on record,” says Harris. “They need to understand that they’re just as much in the public domain as the candidates are.”

As for what timeframe is right, Becker says responding within a day if often acceptable for smaller scale campaigns with fewer staff resources. On a larger scale campaign, certain staffers should be assigned to tweet from mobile devises, allowing for more rapid response.  

3. Turn the negative into a positive

Once you’ve devised a response, there are ways to further maximize the benefits, says Rosy Kalfus, project manager at Grassroots Solutions. Including hashtags and links within the 140-character space can authenticate your message.

If the initial confrontation is issues-based, it’s helpful to include links to the campaign site or other sites with information that bolsters the position of the campaign. And if you play the response right, it could even mean a temporary boost in fundraising or support.

Also, says Becker, pay attention to the placement of the “@” symbol in your tweet. Placing it in the middle of the tweet rather than at the start makes that message visible to more people, allowing for greater engagement.   

Relevant hashtags make the tweet visible to more people, creating an easily identifiable connection and fosters engagement, Kalfus adds.  

“I think you want to respond in a way that is thoughtful, using complete words that are substantive in some way,” says Kalfus. “You want to be formal, engaging, and keep a positive tone, always.”


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