Muddying the waters over transparency.

Do you really need to tell all?

Are we ready for completely wired legislators? News reports over the last week not only covered President Obama’s address to Congress, but the fact that many members were busily thumbing away during the speech with Twitter posts.

How’s that for the democratic process in action? Instant feedback. And like a lot of stuff we say in the moment, there are a few things that our elected officials probably wish they could pull back.

Much of the instant discussions were what you’d expect—partisan or semi-partisan comments. But then again, there’s Joe Barton (R, TX), who thumbed “Aggie basketball game is about to start on espn2 for those of you that aren't going to bother watching pelosi smirk for the next hour.” A few minutes later, this message appeared: “Disregard that last Tweet from a staffer.”

You can continue mining nuggets like this by visiting, which follows the 140-character messages of our honorable members of the House and Senate. (You can even sign their petition to encourage your own Congressmen and Senators to begin tweeting.)

Here are a few recent posts:

  • “This large March snowfall in DC is bound to play havoc w/the planned global warming demonstration. It's more than ironic.” (Dana Rohrabacher, R, CA)
  • “Only 38 more followers away from 3000. Thanks everybody! Who will be #3000?” (Barbara Boxer, D, CA)
  • “I'm depressed about my Tigers. And new HHS Sec nominee called to rub it in! Gotta go make dinner.” (Claire McCaskill, D, MI)

And if you want to see what’s happening in the U.K. with Members of Parliament, simply sign on to

Now, that’s not to say that instant response isn’t going to be part of the communications mix. It will, and it offers some interesting dynamics. John Culberson (R, TX) uses a tweet to link to a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Cabell written in 1816. Culberson says “Here is what the next American revolution will look like which we will lead w/ widespread use of social media.” (Culberson has 9025 followers currently.)

John McCain is now twittering (admittedly, with the help of staffers), and is broadcasting his Top 10 list of the “porkiest” projects in the Omnibus spending bill currently on the floor (His #1: $1.7 million for pig odor research in Iowa. What would have happened if he’d been that funny before November?)

McCain is by far and away the most followed legislator, with more than 119,000 people signed on to his posts. And he (or maybe his staffers) seem to be adapting well to using this tool to push his agenda.

However, from a communicator’s standpoint, it’s intriguing to watch people who have been rigorously trained to be very careful in front of TV cameras and newspaper reporters forget most of this when they’re looking at their phones and rattling off whatever comes into their heads.

That’s why we’ll quickly see a retro-revolution where legislative tweets start disappearing or become slightly more boring than watching C-Span. Because some of these comments are going to come back to haunt people.

And that’s something to consider in your marketing communications: Are there tweets, status updates or invites on Facebook, or other types of electronic messages going out about your company that can help—or hurt—you?

In the past, a verbal misstep (even one on TV) could be damaging or embarrassing for a few days. But since pretty much everything now goes into the digital archive, it’s there for anyone to recall whenever it might suit their interests.

And if you think it’s a little astounding that politicians can communicate in 140 characters or less, imagine how difficult it can be to clarify a comment in the same amount of space (you could blame it on a staffer maybe).

Our previous post, “The Shelf Life of Information” (link) covers how news reports continue to have a small but steady readership for sometimes years after they are published, thanks to electronic archiving. Even the best organizations will likely contradict themselves if you lay out a long enough timeline (because of management changes, product improvements, or any of a number of other factors). Now, add in spur-of-the-moment comments, and it’s pretty easy to predict that somebody, somewhere, is going to say something that creates problems.

Transparency is an issue that we’re still coming to grips with. We want it, but most people and organizations have information that should be kept behind closed doors—product secrets, legal issues, or (just as often) stuff that nobody else really wants to hear. (Do we care that Claire McCaskill is depressed about Missouri’s basketball team and is going to make dinner?)

The rules of communications that apply to reporters and news media should be considered (although maybe a little more liberally) when using short-form social messaging. Not doing this puts your organization (or you personally) at risk.