James Murphy III slowly joined the world of Twitter.
In late November of 2011, his teenage daughters were using the social media service Twitter and his friends were on it. “I should learn about this,” he remembers thinking.
Joining the millions on Twitter was initially complicated by his job: district attorney for Saratoga County. There was the fear of being inappropriate, sharing the wrong thing about a case or a dozen other scenarios. But all were far more mundane than the example of disgraced U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, who shared suggestive photographs with selected followers.
What’s your handle?
Twitter handles of some local officials and government agencies:
• U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook: @RepChrisGibson (Congressional account)
• U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: @SenGillibrand (campaign account)
• U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer: @ChuckSchumer (Senate account)
• Gov. Andrew Cuomo: @NYGovCuomo
• Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam: @ASantabarbara
• Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Glenville: @James Tedisco
• State Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-Halfmoon: @KathyMarchione
• Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III: @JimMurphyIII
• Schenectady City School District Superintendent Laurence Spring: @SchnctdySuper
• Schenectady County Government: @SchdyCountyNY
• Albany Police Department: @albanypolice
By the end of 2011, though, many public officials, from President Barack Obama to then Malta Town Council candidate Ryan Gregoire, were already using Twitter.
Murphy made the leap.
“I was very, very cautious. I was very careful,” he remembered.
At first the tweets from his account, @JimMurphyIII, were limited to things like announcing sentencing dates or hearing information. He was trying to use the few characters allowed on Twitter to inform people following a case in the county.
Soon he realized his work tweets were mostly just information that would have been shared via a fax machine, which is becoming almost completely obsolete, or email, which is slow compared to a tweet. “That’s what really started me thinking that Twitter could be used in a much better way for communicating with the public and the media,” Murphy said.
To test this theory, in the spring of last year Murphy began using his Twitter account to share links to news releases on his website, which were also shared through email and fax. The response from the media was almost universal, he said, with almost everyone telling him they found the releases through Twitter.
As a result, Murphy has become a regular user of Twitter, with about 600 followers now. The older forms of communications are still in place, but that doesn’t stop him from using his phone to send out tweets from anywhere, including the courtroom.
“It’s quicker for me and I think it reaches more people, including the public,” he said.
Informing the public was the rationale behind the entry into Twitter by state Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Glenville. Whether on the floor of the Assembly, at one of the many events he attends in his district or just trying to emphasize a point with a picture, he uses his BlackBerry to share information with his constituents through the account @JamesTedisco.
Tedisco, who said he loves the immediacy of the format and the fact that it allows people to directly engage him, also touts the cheapness of the forum compared to the thousands legislators can spend on mail to their constituents. “We’ve got better ways of communicating,” he said.
And since 2009, Tedisco has been using Twitter to comment on Assembly debates, share his travels in the district and even post a picture of himself reading legislation on a computer to emphasize his support for ending the mandatory printing of legislation.
He said the input he gets through Twitter — people sending him direct private messages or simply sending an open message — also impacts the way he thinks about things and can generate ideas or facts that might be used in a floor fight.
Recently, Murphy used Twitter to clear up a false rumor that Dennis Drue, the man accused of about 50 felonies in connection with the deaths of two Clifton Park teens in a car accident Dec. 1, had committed suicide in jail. After talking to the investigator handling the case, Murphy decided to tweet a correction.
His tweet was retweeted more than a dozen times and members of the public sent him private messages as a response. “The story died instantly,” he said.
Despite Twitter’s growing popularity, it wasn’t always a necessity in the political arena.
Morgan Hook, now a public affairs officers, wasn’t using the service in 2010 when he was communications director for then-Gov. David A. Paterson. He said the state reporters were on Twitter, but it wasn’t mainstream and he didn’t know many people in state government who were using it.
“It wasn’t essential that we would follow Twitter,” Hook said. Now he views Twitter in a different light. “If you’re working in the world of politics and you’re not part of it, you’re at a huge disadvantage.”
One of the advantages is the ability of public officials to bypass the media. Television, radio and print media used to be the only formats for elected and public officials to share their messages, but with the Internet and Twitter, officials can directly engage their audiences.
Hook, who has more than 200 followers on @MorganHook, said advocacy groups, politicians, state officials and basically anyone in the public eye is using Twitter to share their own narrative.
Sharing a story is one of the main focuses for Schenectady City School District Superintendent Laurence Spring. His account, @SchnctdySuper, has been highlighting the inequities of state education aid in recent months. At one point that even included sharing a Daily Gazette article that quoted him accusing state aid of being racially imbalanced.
Spring said he gets a mix of responses from his account, with followers including students and their parents, news media, some employees and education figures around the state.
He said the forum is mostly a way for him to communicate ideas, get feedback and see what others in the field of education are talking about. In his office, using Twitter helps scale back the amount of emails and memos sent. Most of his tweeting is done from his phone in between activities.
Spring uses his account for more than just work, as he tries to share some of his personality and life with his more than 200 followers. He noted that anyone who follows him on Twitter knows he likes to run, including a long run on Sundays.
DA Murphy said that using Twitter for personal purposes is impossible to avoid. Highlighting the fact that his work life often bleeds into his personal life, he said crimes often wake him up in the middle of the night. He says that people expect public officials to have a personality and that is why he shares information about his life, which often revolves around rowing events for his daughters.
“I do blend them together,” Murphy said of his personal and work life, “which I think is OK as long as it’s done appropriately and in good taste.”
There is a darker side to being a public official in the era of Twitter: They can become the target of parody or potentially a crime if the account masquerades as a person it’s not. An account, @MayorMcCarthy, does not belong to Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy although it claims to — even with a profile picture of the mayor. McCarthy has filed a criminal complaint with the Schenectady Police Department on the grounds that the account is using his identity and pretending to be him.
This example is in sharp contrast to the @ShellySilver account, which is clearly labeled “Fake Sheldon Silver.” The account, obviously not the droll Assembly speaker, is hilarious and a favorite among people following state politics. Hook said the Silver account gets retweeted by many people he follows and is usually good for a laugh.