Atlanta mayoral candidates reap joys, pain from rise of social media


With 13 people in the race to succeed Kasim Reed as Atlanta mayor next year, candidates increasingly are turning to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to try to break through the messaging noise and connect one-on-one with voters.

Kwanza Hall used Facebook on Thursday to outline his plan to improve neighborhoods while Cathy Woolard was quick to boast on Twitter last week of the “excellent” rating she received from the business-oriented Committee for a Better Tomorrow. John Eaves went live on Facebook in February as he filed his paperwork to jump in the race.

But social media can also be a candidate’s foe. Twitter exploded with negative comments when Mary Norwood, at a recent forum, hesitated on a question about the existence of racial profiling. And after Ceasar Mitchell called for a moratorium on new city contracts in August because of his suspicion that Reed is rushing deals through City Hall before his term ends, the mayor took to Facebook to point out the number of donors to Mitchell’s campaign with contract ties to the city.

As the candidates sprint toward election day Nov. 7, experts say deft handling of social media could play a pivotal role in who wins or at least makes it to an unexpected runoff.

More than 50 percent of American voters said social media played a significant role in their awareness of the 2016 presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, says Sean Richey, an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University.

“The Internet is by far the No. 1 source of information for everyone,” Richey said. “And social media as a subset of that is increasingly becoming a dominant force.”

Nowhere else can a candidate address the issue of the day in mere minutes, post a constant stream of campaign photos to show warmth and accessibility, or defend a stand on a controversial topic with the same immediacy as social media, the experts said.

That influence has grown as reliance on smartphones and tablets has increasingly replaced traditional advertising nodes. No longer do voters watch the boob tube at night hoping to catch a candidate’s ad during the commercials. Today voters look the iPhone or an Android device for news updates and use alerts to keep up with candidates they follow on social media.

That has elevated the job of social media strategist on campaign teams next to that of the campaign manager and the chief fundraiser, the experts said.

“It’s unprecendented in its importance on this campaign,” said Harvey Newman, professor emeritus at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. “It spreads you message far and wide in a way that was never available to politicians in the past like Bill Hartsfield or Maynard Jackson.”

But Newman said it also makes missteps impossible to gloss over.

“If there is a mistake, there’s no taking it back,” he said. “There are no re-do’s. Because it’s something you can’t turn off easily, you expose yourself as a candidate more frequently and widely for the good and the bad. You just have to live with it out there or just hope it goes away.”

Mary Norwood, the frontrunner according to the smattering of polls released so far, has found that out the hard way. She was vilified in late August when she posed in a picture with newly-minted Congresswoman Karen Handel, a Republican, at the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue on the state capitol grounds. The pictures resurrected rumors that Norwood, an independent, is secretly Republican, a label that can mean death to a campaign in heavily Democratic Atlanta.

Then in early September, Norwood hesitated at the Georgia Stand Up forum when asked if racial profiling existed. After getting clarity on whether the moderator meant in Atlanta or nationally, Norwood responded to the question in the affirmative. But by then her hesitation was already making the rounds in cyberspace.

“Social media has an important role; it is immediate and because of that it has a responsibility—just as all media outlets— to post the complete interaction that it is reporting,” Norwood said in a statement Friday. “It is important so that its recipients can see an accurate portrayal of what has occurred. When social media posts only a portion of any dialogue; it can easily become a misrepresentation of facts and thus, that becomes the most unfortunate aspect of social media.”

There are other challenges as well, experts and campaign surrogates said. Because of its immediacy, social media posts are not vetted in focus groups or analyzed by political consultants before they go out like well-crafted, poll-tested stump speeches or position papers. That’s usually not a problem when its pictures of candidates shaking hands with voters or running in the Peachtree Road Race, but it can give rise to controversial tweets, such as those by then-candidate Trump last year.

It can also keep campaign workers tense in live situations.

“It’s not scripted,” Lynne-Anne Huck, a spokesman for John Eaves said about the Facebook Live broadcast of this filing for mayor. “It’s like reality TV.”

To be effective requires agility, both to promote and to pushback. The more savvy campaigns post photos and videos from campaign forums as they happen, the experts said. The smartest are employing live streaming to talk directly to voters, answering questions as they make pitches on what they plan to do about affordable housing or their proposal to unclog Atlanta’s streets.

And they can also get reactions to news of the day out to more voters quicker than sending out press releases or making formal statements on campaign websites.

State Sen. Vincent Fort was quick to respond to the shooting death of Georgia Tech student Scout Schultz in late September.

“I was saddened to hear about the tragic shooting of Scout Schultz, a student activist at Georgia Tech,” Fort said. “Scout was the president of the Georgia Tech Pride Alliance as a passionate advocate for LGBTQ rights. Monday I was compelled to attend a vigil at Georgia Tech for Scout and I had the opportunity to meet Scout’s father. They were a fighter who shared a vision for an Atlanta that protects all people, and for a movement that centers those who are too often ignored and pushed around by those in power.”

For Peter Aman, the former city of Atlanta COO running his first-ever race for office, social media has been invaluable, he said. Aman started out of the gate early with a web ad that simply made fun of people trying to say his name. Social media has helped him build a brand for the ground up because, unlike most of his opponents, he didn’t have a built-in constituency from his years in office.

“Social media is a force multiplier,” said Aman, using language that belies his years in the corporate world before his short stint in City Hall. “It allows you to reinforce both the introduction of yourself, your name identification and most importantly get your messages out there more quickly and directly.

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The AJC's Leon Stafford keeps you updated on the latest in the Atlanta mayoral race and everything else going on at City Hall. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

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