As I originally wrote for Forbes, there was a moment during the recent implosion of Congressman Anthony Weiner — which just became official last week — that should have sent chills down the spine of anyone who guides communication strategy for organizations, politicians or other public figures.
The New York Times reported that conservative operatives correctly predicted he would be caught in a sex scandal a full month before it happened. Their source: the Twitter users Weiner was following that were in plain sight for any other Twitter user to see.
Many of us understand the openness of social media represents an incredible opportunity for data mining and analysis for marketers. Now, it’s clear these tools can be used by your political opponents to find your interests and weaknesses at a level never before available.
These evolving media dynamics are indicative of the social media landscape becoming, for a large number of Americans, the principal medium through which we connect, share, engage and learn. And clearly, politicians are no exception.
Which begs the question as to why the communications function on Capitol Hill has not been given greater due. After all, next to crafting policy, communications may be the most important function within a congressional office.
Wouldn’t elected leaders be better served by placing greater emphasis on receiving more senior level counsel from professionals who are deeply experienced in leveraging social media channels in building brands, managing issues, and sharing ideas?
Consider the most effective communicators amongst our recent presidents: JFK, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. It’s no coincidence they are perhaps the most beloved president of the past 50 years. And make no mistake: these communications skills stemmed from sound strategy (and for one, a career in acting), which is an art form developed through experience, trial and error.
The group monitoring Rep. Weiner’s Twitter feed used Twitter’s open architecture to identify a pattern in the young women he was following. Although they couldn’t read the private messages he was sending, they correctly guessed what was going on — he was essentially cyberstalking young women and they even took the step of reaching out to some of them to warn them about Weiner.
The fact that Rep. Weiner used a public tool to feed his impulses clearly tells us a great deal about his judgment, even while having some veteran communicators guiding him. But it also indicates how little Weiner and others understand about these new means of communication that have become commonplace tools.
Twitter and Facebook are incredibly powerful assets for reaching constituents directly with very targeted announcements/promotions. This is an area younger political (and corporate) staff are very well versed in, having been raised on a steady diet of instant communication.
But knowing how to do something and guiding lawmakers through today’s social media landscape are two very different skills. Indeed, how these tools can be used for and against you is an area that is only thinly understood.
So the question is: who is qualified? Who can sit across the table from a member of Congress and clearly delineate what that person can use their personal social media accounts for in representing their office, map out how much time should be spent each day engaging with constituents through digital channels, understands channel content and can comfortably discuss the types of photos that should be used, and when to respond to or ignore negative feedback?
Just like anything else, it requires practical experience, having already learned from trial and error, managing meaningful issues, and understanding how to truly leverage the nuances of today’s social media toolkit.
So let’s look past the obvious in the Weiner scandal, and instead, consider that elected officials need sound counsel on how, why and when to access social and traditional media from someone both skilled in the art of communications and experienced in the use of social media channels.
In the end, any politician who uses these tools without professional guidance does so at his or her own risk.