Nov/Dec 2009

State News: August 2009


State News August: The New Public Sphere

the new public sphere

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Getting the Message Out

While that interaction in a new type of public sphere is important, government officials are also finding the new media gives them the opportunity to get their message out to many more people.
When Grayson, Kentucky’s secretary of state, launched an online program to allow anyone in the state wanting to start a business to file the paperwork through his Web site, he promoted it in the traditional media—garnering some print and radio coverage—and in new media using Facebook and Twitter. In just a few months after launch, more than 20 percent of eligible filings were made online, he said.
Grayson primarily credits the new media for that adoption rate.
Blake from the Massachusetts governor’s office, said the media landscape is shifting and people who may have previously gotten their news through the traditional media—newspapers, television and radio—are now going online for news.
These social networking sites give information specifically to those who want it, those friends or followers tuned in to specific officials. Those officials often offer followers a choice in the way to get their news. Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna, for instance, maintains a blog, Twitter and Facebook accounts, and also posts videos regularly on YouTube, often about the consumer protection services his office provides.
“People like to consume information by video as well as by text,” he said. “I think there’s no question the public is better informed because there are so many more tools at our disposal.”
Those tools, for the most part, are free.
“We don’t have any spare dollars so the ability to use Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, the Internet, to get our message out is huge,” said Grayson of Kentucky.
And while the tools are technology driven, they’re not difficult to pick up, said Brod, who admits she’s “not overly technologically adaptive.”
Nor should the new media be considered simply technical or “Web stuff,” said Blake.
“These are pretty major cultural changes, not simply technology issues,” he said.
Blake works, for instance, with the governor’s press office to use Twitter to get messages out, and with the constituent services staff to answer questions from Massachusetts residents.
“It’s not about the technology at all,” he said. “It’s about what you do with it.”


Getting to Know You

A side benefit of social media is that constituents see their elected officials as a person and not just as a legislator or secretary of state or attorney general.
Brod said she mixes in personal tweets with legislative news. “For me, it’s also a tool I can use so people can see me as a very well-rounded, but very busy and very normal individual,” she said. “Sometimes I think people think state legislators do nothing other than legislate.”
But painting an accurate picture requires an authentic interaction—that means the named sender has to actually send the message, and not an intermediary, said Aronberg.
“People want to see their elected officials as real people and not as staged candidates controlled by pollsters and spinmeisters,” he said.
But even that requires some personal vetting of information.
Grayson once commented on the play of a University of Kentucky basketball player during a loss by the Wildcats. That created a “Twittergate” controversy of sorts, he said, and made national news.
“I expressed an opinion as a fan and forgot I’m secretary of state,” he said. The incident was a good reminder that an official is always an official when he’s making comments, said Grayson. “It was a reminder that my opinions might matter a little bit more too,” he said.
That in itself may show the power of these social media, and the importance they may play in government, according to Self of Blue State Digital. And those still holding out need to get past their hesitation, he said.
“You can do it now or you can do it later but you’re going to have to do it someday,” he said. “It’s just about getting over the mental stumbling block of doing things a little bit differently.”
—Mary Branham is managing editor of State News magazine.
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