Pssst, Mitt: It Takes 23 People to Vet One Of My Posts!

Before I can post any essay at my Presidential Power site, it needs to pass through a rigorous vetting by a host of people on my blogging team. This includes fact-checking by my team of research assistants, and a legal review by my lawyers looking for potential libel issues. I have a technical staff that helps with uploading charts, tables and YouTube videos. I usually run it by my kids to be sure I don’t embarrass them with any awkward references to their upbringing. My diversity coach needs to weigh in as well to be sure I include some reference to historically marginalized groups. Then Miss Grundy, my 5th grade high school English teacher, will give it a close read to ferret out any split infinitives, misplaced prepositions and the like. I then send the draft to my high school gym teacher, in an effort to show him I’m really not “a worthless and weak pencil-necked geek”. As a last check for relevance to popular culture, I’ll pick a random person at the checkout line of the local grocery store to give it a read. Finally, I send it to Mom via traditional mail because, well, she’s my Mom and I know she’ll call me to say “it’s wonderful!” In short, only after 23 people have reviewed my draft post do I feel comfortable uploading it. Sure, it’s a tedious process, but it’s necessary given the size of my readership and the potential damage that one inadvertent phrase in my post can have on world affairs.

Sound ridiculous? Of course – but only slightly more so than what recent media reports have led us to believe regarding the process the Romney presidential campaign purportedly put in place before it allowed any tweet to go out during the 2012 presidential race. According to the former Romney “digital integration director” Caitlin Checkett, as quoted in this published academic paper by communications scholar Daniel Kreiss, “So whether it was a tweet, Facebook post, blog post, photo—anything you could imagine—it had to be sent around to everyone for approval. Towards the end of the campaign that was 22 individuals who had to approve it. … The digital team unfortunately did not have the opportunity to think of things on their own and post them. … The downfall of that of course is as fast as we are moving it can take a little bit of time to get that approval to happen.”

The first reference I saw to this story was two days ago in this tweet by Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan who simply posted that quote and linked to the actual article.  Within hours references to the 22-person twitter claim had popped up, by my count, in more than two dozen media outlets, ranging from the Washington Post to MSNBC to the HuffingtonPost and USA Today. In addition, several of my students forwarded links to the story to me. As far as I can tell, most of these outlets simply repeated the quote without bothering to check with other Romney campaign aides to see whether the process described by this aide was actually in place. As it was, Romney’s chief campaign strategist Stuart Stevens had almost immediately tweeted that the story wasn’t accurate, but this didn’t seem to make it into any of the online coverage.

Why did this story take off so fast? My guess is because it fit with a prevailing sentiment among bloggers and pundits that it was the ineffectiveness of the Romney campaign that led to his loss in 2012 despite a weak economic recovery that usually would have cost the incumbent president reelection. That narrative, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is almost certainly wrong; the notion that disparities in campaign effectiveness is what cost Romney the victory is simply not supported by any evidence that I’ve seen. Political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck make a similar argument in their book The Gamble when in reviewing the available evidence regarding campaign effectiveness, particularly during the summer of 2012, they conclude, “The reason that the polls were so stable is that the Obama and Romney campaigns were fairly evenly matched.”

Indeed, the real irony here is that if the pundits citing the 22-person reference had actually read Kreiss’ article, they would have found that he paints a more favorable picture of the Romney digital team than this one heavily tweeted quote suggests. Kreiss notes, for instance, how well prepared Romney’s digital team was to capitalize on social media during and after Romney’s strong performance in the first presidential debate. More generally, Kreiss’ account shows a Romney digital staff that seemed in some respects quite nimble in adapting to the twitter-driven coverage that grew so prevalent during the 2012 campaign. (Kreiss’ paper is well worth reading for its description of how both campaigns sought to win the recurring “two-hour” cycle of social media coverage.)

It is evident that many pundits, reacting to the pressure of publishing in the compressed media cycle that characterizes the digital age, did not bother to read the Kreiss article closely and instead simply relayed the initial twitter excerpt that fit with the prevailing conventional wisdom regarding how the data-driven, digital-savvy Obama campaign ran circles around poor Mitt’s antiquated analog-based outfit. Moreover, few of them seemed to bother to reach out, via a simple email (as I did) to members of the Romney campaign team to verify the story. If they had they might have come to different conclusions, or at least presented another side to the story. (To be fair, some of the news outlets did seem to make an effort to scan Kreiss’ paper, although not many seemed to bother to confirm the 22-person tweet claim.)

Not only did many pundits not engage in basic fact-checking – some went on to use the 22-person twitter narrative to draw additional conclusions about how a President Romney might have conducted his presidency. In a line of reasoning that was repeated in various forms by other news outlets, the Vox’s Andrew Prokop wrote, “Still, having 17 to 22 people vet each tweet seems like a bit of an overcorrection, and makes one wonder what Romney’s management style would have been like in the White House.” I’ve done extensive research on how presidents manage the White House, and it’s not clear to me that one can say much about a president’s organizational effectiveness based on how his campaign ran social media. As evidence, one need look no further than Obama’s presidency. After extolling the digital savvy that apparently characterized Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, pundits are now giving him poor reviews as a White House manager. Evidently Obama’s campaign effectiveness did not translate very well into running the presidency!

Let me be clear. I don’t know how the Romney team ran its digital social media campaign, although I confess that I am skeptical that 22 people had to sign off on each tweet, Facebook post or blog. However, the real lesson from Kreiss’ paper, it seems to me, is how both campaigns sought to use social media to influence how journalists covered the presidential race. Too often, it appears, journalists used dubious metrics, such as tweets, as a barometer for how the campaigns were doing among the general public. In so doing they left themselves open to manipulation by both campaigns’ digital outreach efforts. Judging by the overreaction in the online punditocracy to tweets about the Kreiss article, many media pundits have yet to learn this basic lesson.

11 comments

  1. Great points all around, but still I want to make this joke:

    Question: “Is It true that the Romney campaign required at least 22 people to sign off before any Tweet was approved?”
    Answer: “What an idiotic question, clearly this is based on lies being spread by unAmerican communist intellectuals like Brendan Nyhan and Matt Dickinson. Next question.”
    Question: “Is It true that the Romney campaign required at least 18 people to sign off before any Tweet was approved.’
    Answer: “I have no comment at this time.”

    On a broader note I’d just say that if you win a presidential campaign you and everyone who worked for you are by definition geniuses, if you lose one you are all of course a bunch of morons. It’s kind of strange, but that’s how the political media rolls.

  2. Hah! And this: “How many staffers does it take to issue a tweet?” (Fill in blank…)

    You are right, of course: inevitably the victors’ history of most campaigns is what wins out.

  3. I know you are all having fun here, but I was very disappointed by the insular tightly wound group that ran the Romney campaign. I believe they lost a race that could easily have been won.

    After Mitt had Obama on the ropes in the first debate, they told him to “look Presidential”. That’s why he ratcheted down the attack and, in what I personally saw as the tipping point, acceded to Obama and Candy Crowley when he was definitely able to administer the killing stroke on the question of Benghazi and a terrorist attack. Mitt had him for a moment and let him go.

    Mitt was misguided by them, he faltered, and in that brief moment, he went from winner to loser.

    When I was a young law student, my trial professor told us to go watch Melvin Belli who was in trial in Los Angeles. I was impressed; he had boots and long hair and a spiffy suit, and he bellowed at the jury. later, the professor asked us what he thought. Someone said he was gong to try to emulate Belli. The professor told him that if he did, he’d be a resounding failure.

    A candidate, like a trial lawyer, has to be him or herself. A tightly controlled candidate cannot win an election that is based upon personalities. Not all are, but if the race is down to the candidates, and the money, the organizations and the issues are not dominant, the candidate has to be free to be her or himself.

  4. Shelly,
    I remember having the same reaction when watching that debate – that Romney got sandbagged when Crowley inserted herself as arbiter by appearing to “set the record straight” on Benghazi. But I’m not sure how important that was in the long run – most of the forecast models (but not all) gave a slight edge to Obama on the basis of the admittedly uneven economic growth on his watch as well as the fact that he was the incumbent. I’m more skeptical than you that Romney’s (or his staff’s) failings doomed his bid. But it is a point worth debating.

  5. Actually, I’d be willing to pay a considerable cost in efficiency to prevent a digital team from tweeting spontaneously in my name. I really have no problem with that.

  6. Scott,

    Good point. In fact, the Romney team (according to the campaign aides I talked to) did have a vetting process in place to make sure no tweets went out without prior approval. But the process (I am told) involved 3-4 high-level aides – not 22 – which presumably entails a slightly lower loss in efficiency. I suspect the Obama team had a similar process in place to prevent unvetted tweeting.

  7. How about just doing it yourself? Then, it will smack of authenticity.

    People know the difference between real and artificial.

  8. Shelly – By “yourself”, do you mean the candidate? Presumably any authorized “tweet” reflects the candidate’s views, yes? And presumably candidates want the benefit of their aides’ input and expertise before putting out any message? I’m not sure soliciting and incorporating that input necessarily makes the end product less authentic, does it?

  9. Allow aides to make recommendations to you and post yourself. This is not nuclear science.

    Sophisticated software allows us to input verbally or with a smart phone; just do the actual post yourself.

    Eliminate the smart young guys/gals who get you into trouble; less tweets, but more authentic. People might really look at them instead of ignoring them because they know it is just aides posting under the candidates’ names.

  10. Why bother with a tweet at all, when its authorship is so supect? Live TV beats Twitter anytime.

  11. Jack,

    I suppose one way to look at the use of social media, including tweets, is that it is similar to other forms of presidential communication, like speeches. So, when FDR proclaims a “New Deal”, or JFK tells us “Ask not….”, etc., we are never sure if those are their words, or Raymond Moley’s or Ted Sorenson’s. But we assume they reflect the president’s sentiments. So, if a tweet comes from the Romney campaign, we have to assume he’s approved it, even if he hasn’t written it. Of course, some authors of tweets are readily identifiable by their specific twitter handles. When I get a tweet from VJ44, I assume it is from Valerie Jarrett (or her staff). Keep in mind that there are times, such as in a presidential debate, where campaigns are tweeting furiously on behalf of the candidates who are debating. So they can be an efficient means of communication, as long as they aren’t complicating or undercutting the candidate’s message. The issue, it seems to me, is how to take advantage of social media as efficiently as possible. Candidates have to exercises some top-down control so that everyone stays on message, but not to the extent that the process gets bogged down to the degree that it undercuts the utility of using social media as a communication channel.

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