Managing Your Information During Contentious Political Environments

As you read this article, we find ourselves right smack in the middle of a contentious political environment; it only takes a few minutes of watching the news each evening to realize this. It is important for a Public Information Officer (PIO) to understand our role during such an environment. Our role is relatively simple — to avoid participation as much as possible.


It is important for the PIO to remain neutral and to understand his or her main responsibility — to keep our customer informed with information related to the agency we represent. By staying solely focused on this main responsibility we can do our jobs better and stay away from a potentially toxic environment. Additionally, this neutrality will help you should an incumbent politician be unseated following the election cycle. Even more importantly, this neutrality also helps in protecting the brand that you carefully built. A brand can be diminished quicker than it can be created, and can take twice as long to repair said brand.

Our Customers

I’ve spoken about our “Customer” in detail in my previous columns; so I will review quickly. As a PIO our customers include residents, visitors, community leaders, fellow public safety agencies, town and city departments — parks and recreation, street maintenance, police to name a few — and of course our news media partners.

Candidate Use of Social Media

As each political cycle closes and the next one begins we see an increase in the use of social media for political campaign messaging. Some experts predict that social media is the future choice for ALL political campaign marketing — more so then television and radio ads. President Obama is credited with being the first presidential candidate to use and leverage social media, successfully, during his campaigns. President Obama was credited with successfully using Reddit, a popular networking site much like an online bulletin board, to allow citizens to ask questions of him. His “Ask Me Anything” column became one of the most popular social media threads of all time. In this current presidential campaign, experts are predicting that spending on social media alone could account for more than half of the $1 billion budget for digital media.

As we’ve witnessed, current presidential candidates are using social media daily, to make statements and to campaign. Specifically, on Twitter these candidates are extremely active. They may not be “tweeting their way into office” as some suggest, but the top five presidential candidates currently use Twitter and have a combined total of almost 17 million followers. Donald Trump comes out on top with over 7.62 million followers (@realDonaldTrump). Followed by Hillary Clinton with 5.96 million followers (@HillaryClinton), then Bernie Sanders with 1.97 million (@BernieSanders). Do not be fooled, your favorite candidate may have less followers than you expected — but if he or she posts something that is shared quite a bit, that post can have a viral performance and potentially reach 100 million people. Here’s an example of a tweet that Donald Trump posted recently that was shared and retweeted quite a bit. Viral performance is what you want, both in the politics and as a Public Information Officer — we’ve had a few of our own posts at Huntersville FD go viral. Fortunately, those posts were positive and informative posts helping us get our messaging out to the masses. Perhaps I’ll talk more on that in a future column.


A key target of political social media messaging is the Millennials. The millennial generation — also referred to as Generation Y — can be briefly described as a person reaching young adulthood around the year 2000. This targeted generation is considered “power users” of social media and use multifaceted approaches to their social media networks. A study a few years ago showed that certain social media networks, specially mentioning Facebook, have significant impact on voting patterns with large scale impact on voter turnout. According to a research study published in Match 2015 by Ipsos MORI, “A third of young people think social media will influence their vote.” The study noted that more than 34 percent of those asked stated that “reading something on social media would influence their vote, second only to televised debates.” The essential takeaway is that social media within the political world is not going anywhere and keep in mind what I stated previously – some experts predict that social media is the future choice for ALL political campaign marketing — more so then television and radio ads.

PIO Use of Social Media

As mentioned in my summer article, our fire department uses social media daily to communicate. Our approach to social media is to keep our intended audience(s) informed and educated on what we do WHILE simultaneously feeding and satisfying the media with the information they need in order to do their jobs effectively and accurately. Below are three examples of typical posts you may find on our Twitter account.

Political Pitfalls

While your social media intentions are to keep your intended audience(s) informed, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, you must be on the look out and be aware of those that will “redirect” your well-intended and informative post. This happens more frequently within a contentious political environment. Over the last year we have frequently found ourselves in this very situation.

It began during our town’s most recent election cycle when our tenured mayor and several tenured town commissioners found themselves in a tough battle for reelection. As we posted our typical calls for service, we began to see re-posts and shares that we had not experienced prior. When a call for service coincided with a hot topic of the election — such as the toll lane project on our local interstate — we noticed that some used our informative post — a normal call for service post — to make a political point. They did this by simply sharing/quoting our post and including a political comment or opinion. The local politicians did not overtly make these posts themselves, but supporters readily and frequently would. See an example below of a typical call for service post involving a motor vehicle accident on the interstate, used to make a political point.

Stay Focused and Stay Neutral

You cannot let redirected posts bother you; they’re going to happen frequently — especially during an election cycle. Your posts may be targeted to help support someone’s message and lend some credibility to their argument/message. As a PIO you must stay the course and remember that you are serving your customers. Do not get drawn into the heat of the battle of the election cycle. While you should not allow misinformation to occur, you can’t stop the sharing, quoting or re-directing of your posts for political benefit. It’s easy to be pulled into the contentious political battle, but stay focused and neutral and keep an eye on the prize — your customer.


Twitter: @huntersville_fd


Personal Twitter: @BPSuthard

Bill Suthard is the Public Information Officer for the Huntersville Fire Department, a three-station fire department covering 62 square miles in northern Mecklenburg County. The department, just north of Charlotte, includes two lakes (Lake Norman and Mountain Island Lake) and serves a population of over 50,000 residents. In 2015 Huntersville Fire Department ran 3,417 calls for service, has 78 part-time employees and approximately 20 volunteer firefighters.

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