Sarah Palin’s unprecedented use of social media to set the agenda in Washington is something communication strategists and leaders should study, regardless of their political persuasion.
“I tweet; that’s just the way I roll,” says Palin, somewhat annoyingly.
But she’s no shrinking violet and doesn’t need our permission to speak out. Some say she should have packed her political bags long ago, that she should have simply lain down in the face of withering assaults against her Presidential fitness. Instead the second most popular politician on Facebook and uber-purveyor of Twitter missives continues to shake the GOP establishment to its good-old-boy core. Her star continues to rise owing in no small part to her surprising emergence as a social media visionary who purposefully circumnavigates the beltway gasbags who would silence her, opting instead for a vital connection with her ardent base of supporters as well as the entire White House press corps, who stand in the cue awaiting her next tweet.
Like or loathe her—but observe the kind of influence a leader can have when she chooses communication channels that promise a direct connection, refusing to capitulate to forces of political correctness and settle for the advice of public relations mavens and party speechwriters seeking to prescribe her every word.
The New York Times Magazine records the exasperation of recently departed White House secretary Robert Gibbs, as he describes the political suicide that would surely follow his inability to respond properly to Palin’s tweets: “If I would have told you that I could open up a Facebook or Twitter account, and simply post quotes, and have the White House asked about those, and to have the White House press corps focused on your Facebook quote of the day—that’s Sarah Palin. She tweets one thing and of a sudden you’ve got a room full of people who want to know…”
In what she’s accomplished she’s thrown down the gauntlet for leaders of every stripe, be they corporate, political or otherwise, calling them to use social media to achieve new levels of transparency and engagement with those they seek to lead. Some user guidelines we can glean from her use of social media include the following:
1/ Be confident; speak your truth: Her description of Rahm Emanuel included “shallow/narrow-minded/political/irresponsible as they come,” and she called Politico writer Jonathan Martin “full of crap.” Thing is a lot of people agree with her, and a kind of movement has grown up around her tweets and status updates. My point is not to debate the merits of what she is saying, but to point out the number of followers or friends who choose to hear her opinion through Twitter and Facebook subscription feeds– the discretionary effort required to actually subscribe to and check these feed messages on a daily basis is the kind of engagement most senior leaders and communicators would kill to have.
2/ Be persistent: Palin could have called it quits after coming under fire for some of the things she said—or more specifically, failed to say during the Katie Couric interview in 2008. Instead she is seeking to remake her image through direct access to her support base through social media channels. Time will determine her success in swaying the wider American public, and whether a run for the White House is sustainable. But her public relations initiatives—her instinct to harness social media communication channels in new and creative ways— is a lesson for all communicators.
3/ Be unafraid to make a mistake: Palin’s lawyer Thomas Van Flein found out about her much publicized tweet calling for peaceful Muslims to “refudiate the ground-zero mosque” at the same time everyone else did. “This is her political instinct in action,” he said. Love it or hate it, this is Palin, bringing the unvarnished truth as she sees it, unfettered, unafraid. We can obsess about her wrong use of a word (even though we understood what she was trying to say), or we can choose to admire her ability to speak out.
4/ Use social media to find change agents to help you lead: Where did Palin find her primary speechwriter (when she uses one), researcher and online coordinator? She found Rebecca Mansour at Conservatives4Palin, a blog Mansour started without pay simply to right what she perceived as biased treatment of Palin and her record. Amazing! You mean she didn’t find her through a single-spaced two page resume posted on a job board? A lesson for HR Talent Acquisition: Mansour already had the fire! She was already engaged and she didn’t need anyone’s permission. She was a self-starter already using social media (blogging) to find her voice and explore her passion with whomever would listen. Palin simply harnessed her near encyclopedic knowledge for the good of her campaign.
5/ Stay connected: The ease and simplicity of communicating through micro-blogging platforms may be just right for many busy leaders who don’t have the time to keep a full-blown blog but who nevertheless seek to remain in vital contact, and who are interested in gathering vital feedback from those they lead in order to make sound consensual decisions. Palin can land a hard punch without moving from her living room sofa in Wasilla, Alaska. Being home with her family doesn’t preclude participation in the ongoing political dialogue– pretty strong argument for work-life balance too, wouldn’t you say?
6/ Show your human side: “Out for a jog in Central Park. Beautiful,” tweets Palin. All work and no play made Jack… well, it ain’t all business folks. Social media offers senior leaders a chance to show some vulnerability, even the occasional chink in one’s armor. Facebook especially has been considered to be a place where you might invite someone you met on another social media channel—like LinkedIn or Twitter— to get to know you better and form a deeper bond. But the lines continue to blur in this area and many believe most of us will opt for one social media platform for both business and personal pursuits in the future. Mark Zuckerburg is certainly banking on it.
There is no over-arching strategy, Palin claims in The New York Times article, just political instinct and an ongoing commitment to participation in the political dialogue. Don’t underestimate this woman and her deft use of social media to get her message across. She’s not asking our permission. She’s not waiting around for the beltway or media elite to provide her with a communication channel. She’s created her own—she’s going direct. Social media made it possible.
How are you doing with what you have to say?