On August 15th, United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power held a Twitter townhall marketed with the hashtag #WhatMatters. Great idea, but only fairly executed. Overall, I'd say it was a worth doing. Power answered several questions submitted before the appointed time across several topics. She gave Americans a chance to connect with her either directly or vicariously through someone whose question she answered. That goes a long way toward making the public more open, connected to the US's UN mission.
While Ambassador Power's Twitter townhall was a good start, it was not very well executed. Here is how it could have been improved:
- Answer more questions - In the course of three hours, the Ambassador answered about 18 questions. Not a bad number if the townhall lasted an hour, but a little weak for a three hour event. And especially since many of the questions were submitted in advance of the townhall, more answers could have been provided easily.
- More focus on ordinary citizens' questions - The Ambassador's first answer was to a question from Mia Farrow. And later she answered a question from Greta Van Susteren. Answering Farrow on the first question casts the wrong tone for a townhall. Townhalls are for public engagement, not elite or press engagement. Celebrities and the press have access to officials that the public does not, so answering their questions first sends the wrong message to citizens hoping to get their questions answered. Especially so since so many citizen questions were left unanswered.
- Retweet the question before answering it - Power remembered to put a period in front of the Twitter name of the person she replied to. But while that ensured all of @AmbassadorPower followers would see her answer in their timeline, it breaks the thread link to the question, so no one can find the question tweet. By retweeting the question before answering, readers would be able to see the question even when Power breaks the thread with a period in the subsequent answer.
- Use the hashtag, Power, use the hashtag - After her initial tweet to start the townhall, @AmbassadorPower neglected to use the hashtag in any of her answers. The whole point of the hashtag is to aggregate all of the townhall tweets... the questions, the answers and the follow-up tweets from the audience. By not using the #WhatMatters hashtag in her answer tweets, Powell effectively removed herself from her own townhall.
I strongly encourage public officials to hold Twitter townhalls (and Facebook townhalls, and Google+ townhalls, etc.). These events bring government closer to the people and improve public trust in government and its officials. But they need to be done right to have their intended effects.
Thanks to the ENOUGH Project, who captured the larger townhall conversation in Storify, people are able to get a sense of the back and forth between the Ambassador and folks on Twitter despite the lack of her using the hashtag:
Social Advocacy & Politics is a weekly, exclusive column for Social Media Today by Alan Rosenblatt that explores the intersection of politics and social media. Look for the next installment next Tuesday morning.