Watching the rise of “ghost tweeting,” especially in politics, is a discouraging development. The great promise of social media was that it would give “power back to the people,” allow real conversations and bring about a change in the way we communicate. For the uninitiated, “ghost tweeting” is when someone else (or several people) literally put words in the mouths of another by using a Twitter account in that person’s name to send out “tweets” on their behalf.

Ghost tweeting, particularly in politics, has now become standard practice. Politicians at just about every level and of every stripe have set up accounts on Twitter and no one really knows who is actually tweeting for them or if they are “bravely” attempting to communicate on their own. This is unfortunate because it deprives us as citizens another opportunity to interact with our elected officials in a meaningful way. We can now add Twitter to the list, along with all correspondence, speeches, blogs and just about any written material, of communication that is probably not authentic. When you think about it, talking on the telephone or in person with a politician is likely the only way you can be sure that he/she is speaking in his/her own words. And even the telephone is suspect, given the recent controversy over PR experts listening in on telephone conversations and coaching political leaders on what to say while they are on the call.

But, back to Twitter. Why is this so depressing? After all, politicians have been using speechwriters, PR experts and others since the beginning of time to put words in their mouths and tell them the right thing to say. It’s so depressing for two main reasons.

1. A tweet is only 140 characters. Think about it. One short burst of information, barely a complete thought and largely an informal way of communicating. And our politicians can’t even be trusted to do that right? Aren’t these people the ones we are trusting with the running of our towns, cities, provinces and country? Good grief. They can’t even take part in a basic on-line conversation without the help of a wordsmith? I despair.

2. Social media was supposed to “rock our worlds.” It was supposed to eliminate the “middle man” in our conversations, level the playing field and give us greater insight into what was happening in the world around us. It is clearly a violation of the promise of social media to have someone talk for you on Twitter. It’s dishonest.

There are several ways around this conundrum if you are a politician. This should be common sense, but you know what they say about common sense.

Ghostbusting, a more honest way to go
If you really want a presence on Twitter, but don’t have the time and energy (or the technological prowess) to do this on a regular basis, then set up a Twitter account in the name of your office, for example, a constituency or ward office. Then, designate one or two people to actively engage in conversations with people. This doesn’t preclude you from taking part. If you ever want to join in the conversation, you can simply send out a tweet of your own starting with something like, “Joe Politician here, …” and then tweet away. Keep in mind though, as the leader and the top of the food chain for your office, you are still responsible for whatever your staffers tweet out on behalf of the office. This doesn’t shield you from responsibility, and rightly so.

Save it for another time
If the above option is not available to you and you don’t want the bother of micro-blogging, it’s best not to tweet at all. However, be forewarned that like web domain names, it is recommended that you reserve a Twitter account in your name in case others with less than honourable intentions want to target you with a parody Twitter account. Even if you don’t use it now, you may want to keep the option open for the future. It’s a reality that those who are not involved in social media will be missing out on opportunities for collaboration and communication.

Get your Twitter on
My favourite option is still the one where politicians learn how to tweet and spend some time conversing with “the people,” following others and generally engaging with the world of social media. Sure, I know it involves some work and you should probably get some pointers from others who’ve got more experience with the medium, but the benefits can be phenomenal. There are risks, as well. Some have learned the hard way that a momentary lapse in attention or judgment can easily erupt into a media and public relations nightmare. But that’s politics. Twitter is not unique in that way.

Public relations practitioners face a particular ethical dilemma when asked to tweet on behalf of someone else. After all, they have been ghost writing speeches and other messages for politicians for a long time and may not even consider that this new Twitter scenario is any different. One clarification here: I’m not talking about a situation where a politician composes the tweet but lacks the technical ability or access to post it. That is a completely different matter, although I have some difficulty with those who lack the technical ability to send a tweet. It’s probably easier than sending an email so I’m unsure why someone would be unable to do it, but I’ll keep an open mind to the possibilities.

The litmus test should always be whether the particular politician is being upfront about their micr0-blogging. When it comes to speechwriting, most elected officials will openly admit to using the services of a speechwriter, but I’ve noticed that when confronted with evidence that their tweets are not really their own words, the same politicians are reluctant to admit it. That should be a red flag for the politician and for the PR person. If you are going to have someone tweet on behalf of someone else, that should be clearly explained to “followers” from the get-go, and preferably outlined on the profile of the Twitter account. To do otherwise, is a lie. Plain and simple.

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