Social Media Paramount in Local Campaigns

A recent article published on from Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, quotes Vincent Harris on the importance of social media and online advertising in local elections.

Social media play growing role in local campaigns

By Naomi King
Staff Writer

Published: Saturday, March 26, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.

HOUMA — Hundreds of people are watching this year’s race for Terrebonne Parish president unfold on the Facebook pages of the two candidates who have said publicly they plan to run.

Incumbent Michel Claudet and challenger Parish Council Chairman Clayton Voisin, who have nearly 1,000 Facebook followers combined, are already using the online network to spread their messages and gather feedback.

The use of digital media and social networks in political campaigns, often cited as important to Obama’s 2007 presidential election, is trickling down to the local level, said Vincent Harris, owner of Harris Media, an Austin, Texas, based digital creative and advertising firm. He has worked with Republican campaigns across the country, as well as clients overseas.

“It is nowhere near as common as it should be,” Harris said, adding that many local officials still don’t know what tools are available or that they’re free of charge. “There can be an argument that actually social media and online advertising matters more with local elections with smaller budgets.”

But online social networks can’t replace a candidate showing his face in public and talking with voters in person, Harris added.

Mike Fesi’ II, the youngest Terrebonne president candidate in 2007 at 26 years old, positioned himself at the forefront of using digital media in local campaigns with his text alerts, YouTube videos, social networks and a website. Twitter wasn’t popular locally at the time, he said.

“It’s effective because more and more it becomes part of our daily lives,” Fesi’ said of Facebook. “It’s a lot more convenient. … It’s direct marketing; it goes direct to their phones.”

The power of social media becomes even greater if a candidate uses them to target like-minded people instead of sending out blanket messages to a wider group or holding town-hall meetings with a community that has a wide spectrum of interests, said Ranjit Mathoda, a lawyer and investment manager based in Los Angeles and New York City who blogs on digital media in campaigns. If you can target a demographic you know supports your messages or values, another group with similar interests may pick it up, too.

“As soon as you ‘like’ something on Facebook, all of your friends see that you like it. It’s got a viral growth component,” Mathoda said.

Residents can more easily hold them accountable by directly responding or sharing with others if they misstep or change their stance.

In local elections, with such small voter populations, candidates can’t afford for comments to go unanswered, Harris said.

“They must be engaging their constituents on Facebook because these are real voters, and every vote matters,” Harris said.

Voisin has used much of his online space questioning the current parish president’s actions and pointing out local government’s perceived deficiencies. Claudet has mostly kept his comments focused on the public services and projects that cast a more favorable light on his administration.

On his Facebook page and campaign website, Voisin questions the Claudet administration’s transparency with finances and the use of hurricane-recovery grants on items other than levees and drainage work. He questions the purchase of land for projects, such as setting aside $5 million for a new government-offices complex in north Terrebonne near U.S. 90.

But Claudet contends offline that much of those measures, such as hurricane-recovery spending plans, were approved by the council, including Voisin.

“It’s a typical attempt to distort the truth so people might be led in a direction other than what actually happened,” Claudet said.

Voisin said council members must often rely on the administration to ensure actions are fairly and properly vetted because they receive proposals through meeting agendas on the Thursday and Friday before the council’s Monday and Wednesday meetings.

“We don’t have attorneys and engineers,” Voisin said last week. “How can you ask a question if you don’t know the question is there?”

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