This week’s offering in my continuing series offering unsolicited advice to candidates in this municipal election focuses on answering questions and interacting via social media.

The addition of social media to election campaigning has been a double-edged sword for many candidates. Facebook pages and Twitter accounts offer candidates the opportunity to reach a much wider audience than ever before, and to appeal to demographics that otherwise may be missed. Some candidates, in fact, have chosen to go “signless” and are relying on social media as the pillar of their campaign. Its multimedia platforms are so versatile and functional; one can post videos, links to articles, blog posts, platform pillars, pictures of the family or events along the campaign trail. Rich discussion can be held without ever leaving the comfort of home. People who can’t get out to the forums can view them online. Folks for whom the sea of signs along the roadside is nothing more than a blur can use social media to sort through the list of names and actually learn about who these people are and what they purport to stand for (or against in many cases…)

Social media, though, can also be a dark and difficult place where fakers, trolls and cyber bullies can practice their craft largely unfettered. Even upstanding citizens who are genuinely nice people can find their typing fingers running away with their inside voices, posting things they would likely never say in person. Also, it can be a complete time hog. Candidates can be inundated with questions and requests to participate in groups and pages and opportunities to engage via social media.

No question: social media has its good sides and its bad sides. It’s a tool, and like every other tool, its value is user dependent.

We can’t possibly discuss all the ups and downs and ins and outs of social media as a campaign tool in one post, so let’s focus on one big social media boo-boo I have observed from a number of candidates during this election: failure to answer.

So let’s say you’re a candidate. You’ve put your name out there for consideration for municipal councillor or mayor. You think it’s a great idea to start a Facebook page, open a Twitter account, join some discussion groups and start getting your message out there.

First mistake.

Social media does not exist so that you can “get your message out there”. Using it as a broadcast medium, like radio or TV ads, is ineffective.

The word “social” may be a clue.

Would you walk in to a cocktail party or networking reception, do a quick round around the room broadcasting who you are and what you stand for to every person there, and then leave? Of course not. You understand that when you are at a reception or networking event, you are there to converse; to interact. Let’s say, at this fictional networking event, that you were standing in a group of people, and someone asked you a question about yourself or an election issue… would you just stop talking? Would you say, “Well, come over here to the corner and let me answer you one-on-one”? Not likely – at least, not if you are hoping to get the votes of the rest of those people. One person may have asked the question, but everyone listening wants to hear your answer. This is how campaigning works, whether at a function, a forum, or on Facebook (and there you have your daily dose of alliteration 🙂 ).

Taking this analogy further, let’s say someone aggressively confronts you in a public place, like a community event, and there are several people who witness the confrontation. Even though the other person may be wrong in their information and/or completely inappropriate in their approach, should you a) refuse to answer them? b) complain that they are picking on you? or c) fight back, accusing them of having a hidden agenda or ulterior motive or tinfoil hat?

The correct answer is d) none of the above.

I’ve seen more than one candidate handle themselves very poorly on social media. The truth is that there are many people behaving badly in online forums, but the people who are trying to decide whether or not to put an X by your name don’t usually care about how any of those other people are behaving: they want to see YOUR response, YOUR character, YOUR values. You are the one who has chosen to put yourself out there and how you handle these types of situations can garner support or cost you votes, big time.

It isn’t right for people, no matter who they are, to be mean. It isn’t fair that some people feel entitled to attack public figures and speak to them rudely and abusively. I hate it and it should stop. But it does happen… so why not turn it into a win? Calmly answer. Use humour. Connect with people. You don’t need to argue or defend. Just answer. Once you have done that, you can henceforth say “asked and answered” and you have fulfilled your duty. Most people will be satisfied and you will have engendered new respect. Candidates who show themselves to be respectful in the face of rudeness, firm but decent in the face of aggression, forthcoming and candid in the face of misinformation and maligning, and level-headed in the face of extreme emotion are the types of strong leaders folks want. Courage. Candour. Nobility. Perhaps it sounds too grandiose for municipal politics, but it is truly what people are universally looking for in a leader.

There’s a book I read a few years ago called “In the Line of Fire: How to Handle Tough Questions” by Jerry Weissman. Though it’s based on American politics, it’s a wonderful communications training tool for debaters and those seeking public office. If you have a kindle or e reader you can download it immediately from Amazon and start learning how to win the communications game. I highly recommend it!

I know you candidates are juggling the chainsaws as best you can and that you cannot be everywhere and answer every inquiry. But if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, I’m pretty sure it still makes a sound. If you are asked a question on social media and you either refuse to answer or you lose your cool, the sound we’ll all hear is you laying an egg.

If you want to develop positive relationship and rapport with people, do yourself a big campaign favour: just answer the dang question.

*Special thanks to Mike Szyszka of REaction Marketing for the use of some of his great social media training analogies.