To describe Twitter's impact on the 2012 presidential election, journalists and strategists for the Mitt Romney and Barack Obama campaigns turned to metaphor.

The virtual barstool, or water cooler. A third arm. The soundtrack to television news. Accelerant for media firestorms.

Poetic descriptions aside, panelists at the Curtis B. Hurley Symposium at the National Press Club said Twitter had a profound impact on their daily job requirements, speeding up the news cycle and increasingly shifting the conversation from pundits to the public.

Teddy GoffTeddy Goff, digital director for the Obama campaign, said the challenge wasn't attracting followers but creating content that would encourage users to get involved. The Obama campaign attracted 34 million fans on Facebook, whose friends comprised 98 percent of the social media giant's user base, Goff said. But the digital team's goal was content-based.

“We had a three-word slogan: Don't be lame,” Goff said. Posting about LGBT and woman's issues, for example, led to more interaction from followers than attacks on Mitt Romney.

Zac MoffattZac Moffatt, digital director for the Romney campaign, agreed with the content-based approach to staking out a social media strategy.

“You don't win with the biggest list or best Facebook page,” Moffatt said. “You win because you engage with (followers).”

The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty and Politico's Jonathan Martin said Twitter had become an important news-gathering tool, but they challenged journalists to provide context and expertise not possessed by the masses.

Moderator Barbara Cochran, Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Journalism, noted that citizens and candidates can use social media to communicate directly with the public and asked the panel, "Who needs journalists anyway?" After a pregnant pause, Martin said it was experience that makes the difference.

Jonathan Martin“People don't have time in their day to watch three campaign events,” Martin said. Journalists can offer their in-depth knowledge of a subject to pin down elected officials and illuminate the subtext of political discussion.

Karen TumultyBut Tumulty said citizen journalists, using Twitter as a mouthpiece, can turn traditional journalists on to stories that wouldn't otherwise be told. She used the examples of a lone blogger combing CIA documents about interrogation techniques and what she learned when interacting with commenters on the Time Magazine blog Swampland.

“I found that the more I did it, the more that they became a community and the more valuable their feedback became to me,” Tumulty said. The comments actually sharpened her reporting skills, she added.

Peter GreenbergerTwitter's Washington Sales Director Peter Greenberger said the platform brings together the views of traditional journalists, campaign operatives and the general public in a way that organically shapes a campaign narrative. He used the example of the now infamous “Etch-a-Sketch” flap by a top Romney adviser following the primary campaign.

“That played into a narrative,” Greenberger said. “If it doesn't touch a nerve, if people don't see some truth in it, I don't think it takes hold.”

This is the lesson campaigns must learn in the future in order to be successful reaching out on social media, Goff and Moffatt said. Panelists were unsure how social media would affect campaigns in the next cycle, but they agreed a strong, focused strategy from the outset would be a key to victory.

“Content is what is going to crush people in 2016,” Moffatt said.


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