Let's face it: The 2008 campaign changed the way politicians use the Internet. Blogs, social networking and media-sharing sites had been around for years before Barack Obama showed just how powerful these “new media” tools can be in the political arena. He raised unprecedented sums of campaign cash and organized supporters like never before. Naturally, politicians at every level have followed suit. As I prepared to serve as Speaker of the House, I decided to jump on the bandwagon and experiment with new media during the legislative session. So, I put up a website (www.robbiewills.com), opened a Twitter account (http://twitter.com/robbiewills) and registered on Facebook and YouTube. The lessons I learned were interesting.
First, I learned communicating on-the-fly can be liberating. Posting a blog item or tweet is the fastest way to get the word out about any issue. It's immediate and unfiltered, allowing for quick release of news and rapid response to developments. In the past, a public official had to wrangle an interview or generate a press release and hope it was printed accurately, if at all. With my website, I can rapidly announce policy statements, post You Tube video of a speech, distribute press releases or any other information without going through traditional media channels.
Second, I learned that the format's main benefit is also its major drawback: The immediacy and lack of a filter sometimes leads to problems. Early in the session, I used my website too often to simply vent and respond to critics. I found that thoughts expressed in the heat of debate sometimes clang in the cool aftermath. On more than one occasion I had to tone down comments made in previous blog posts. No matter how good it feels to be proactive and return fire, the best policy is to think twice, post once.
Third, I learned that the new media influences the news cycle. Many times, items that first appeared on a blog ended up on the front page the next day. In fact, I've had many interviews with print and TV reporters begin with “I saw on your blog where you said ...” Just the fact that Arkansas legislators were using new media prompted stories in the traditional press, with papers publishing several articles on our blogging, tweeting and Facebooking.
Finally, I learned that new media tools are here to stay in politics. Across the country, office holders and party caucuses are using social networking and new media to communicate with the public. Here at home, the response to my effort has been very favorable. Constituents in Conway are able to keep track of my legislative activities like never before. Legislators are able to access information about important issues under consideration and the press gets real-time, inside information. In fact, one reporter thanked me for being “the most accessible Speaker ever.” I have a feeling I won't hold that title very long.
A fellow Speaker of the House told me I was crazy for maintaining a blog, especially one where I prepare the content without any editing by my staff. While I wouldn't recommend it to every public servant, the new media is an effective way for me to keep in touch with my constituents, the press and my fellow legislators. The public wants politicians to be more candid and transparent. What better way to accomplish this than in a format that is easily accessed and hard to miss?
Speaker of the House Robbie Wills is a Democrat from Conway, where he practices law. Max Brantley is on vacation.