How to message in social media

Posted on March 13, 2019

As a political leader, what is your purpose for using social media? Are you trying to move persuadable Americans to your side? Rile up your base? Or perhaps put down political opponents?

Certainly, Donald Trump uses social media to energize the right-wing, especially far-right “nationalists.” He also loves to insult opponents, whether or not it benefits him politically. As a user of social media, Trump entertains his base but makes no effort to persuade.

Should you emulate him?

Consider how social media works. Your direct audience is partly selected by you and partly by audience members. Inevitably, the overwhelming number of direct recipients of your messages have opinions that closely track yours. So, there is a natural urge to say things that will create an emotional reaction and perhaps an emotional connection.

But at the same time, social media is “broadcasting.” You cannot control who sees it either because an opponent or researcher has joined your direct audience, or because one of your friends re-posts to a different audience. In either case, your political opponents will inevitably know what you’re saying. And they would be foolish if they didn’t use it against you.

Because social media is convenient, extremely accessible, and requires relatively few words, we may be tempted to communicate without much thought. At the same time, because the messages are brief, it’s easy for poorly-worded posts to be misinterpreted by friends, or intentionally twisted by enemies.

If you are a political leader, elected or not, entirely focused on your base—and it doesn’t really matter if political opponents misuse your posts and tweets to their benefit—then go ahead and say whatever you want.

But for most of us, perhaps it would be smarter to craft social media as if you were always trying to persuade. That means using the same basic rules for social media as you would if you were giving a speech to the city, state or nation—because that’s what you are, at least potentially, doing.

Those rules are:

(1) Begin in agreement. You cannot win an argument by convincing your readers that they are wrong. Make it clear that they are right; that you agree with them about problems and goals. Only then can you provide a persuasive bridge from their preconceptions to your policy solutions.

(2) Use progressive values. In politics, values are ideals that describe the kind of society we are trying to build. When you use broadly-shared values, you stay in agreement with your readers. Such values include: freedom, privacy, opportunity, justice, fair share, level playing field, security, safety, and quality of life.

(3) Show readers how they benefit. The progressive base may be persuaded by appeals to the common good. But most Americans want to know how a policy affects them, their families, and their friends. So, tell people how they benefit either directly or indirectly; demonstrate that you are on their side.

It is true that any given tweet might be too short to encompass all three rules. So in each communication, follow at least one of them.

Further, while following the rules of persuasion, remember to use your readers’ language, not yours. Avoid the technical language of writing and passing legislation because your audience is not familiar with it. Don’t use ideological language because few Americans are ideologues. And simplify—persuasion is not a battle of facts (although our arguments must be fact-based), it is a battle of ideas.

None of this messaging guidance should stop you from supporting or opposing any policy. Be progressive, proactive and bold! The progressive base will appreciate what you stand for. And if you explain it from the perspective of persuadable Americans, they will appreciate it too.


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