Palin emerges as Facebook phenom

By Andy Barr
|  Wednesday, Oct 13, 2010  |  Updated 12:55 PM CDT
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Relying almost exclusively on social media to get her message out, Palin has managed to carve out her own high-profile place in the national health care debate, on energy policy and on tort reform.

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Since resigning her post as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin has essentially gone dark, making almost no public appearances and successfully avoiding the media outlets that are clamoring to talk to her.

But that doesn’t mean Palin has been quiet.

Relying almost exclusively on social media to get her message out, Palin has managed to carve out her own high-profile place in the national health care debate, on energy policy and on tort reform.

While Palin isn’t the only major political figure to try alternative means of communication to bypass the media, her unique ability to remain in the headlines while avoiding the spotlight suggests she may be the first to pull it off successfully.

For several days in August, the national health care debate turned to focus on so-called “death panels,” in large part because of two widely-publicized Palin Facebook posts accusing Democratic authors of the House proposal of creating bureaucratic entities to decide end of life care.

The post was immediately rebuked by Democrats, and even by some Republicans, as untrue and irresponsible. But rather than immediately firing back at her critics when reporters came calling for a response, or issuing a press release defending her claim, Palin waited five days to post her response on Facebook.

The post, simply titled “concerning the ‘death panels,’” went up shortly before midnight on a Wednesday night. By late Thursday morning, a write up of her statement was on the homepage of dozens of national and local newspapers. The post also quickly became one of the most mentioned topics within the political blogosphere.

“I can’t answer what her strategy is, but I can say that it’s working,” said GOP strategist Mary Matalin. “A large issue of why this works is that she has been so demonized and made fun of by the mainstream press.”

With more than 850,000 “friends” following her every statement closely on Facebook, Palin trails only President Barack Obama as the most popular politician on the site. And when Palin ended her Twitter feed after resigning as governor, close to 140,000 people were following her—again, second only to Obama.

“It’s the most passive form of communication there is, it’s only effective if people are dying to go to your Facebook page,” noted Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization designed to advance pro-life women in politics, and co-founder of Team Sarah, a network of Palin supporters. “She’s got this quality that Howard Dean had in terms of the completely organic liberal movement he tapped into.”

Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, a media strategist who does not count himself as a Palin supporter, said the former Alaska governor’s style and appeal lends itself to the online medium.

“Facebook is perfectly suited for someone as polarizing as Sarah Palin,” he said. “It’s the ideal way for her to keep in touch, to rev up her base and go around the mainstream media.”

While Palin has used her Facebook page to weigh in with lengthy posts on health care, energy policy and tort reform, it has also enabled her to highlight causes with a more personal dimension, such as a favorite charity, the celebration of Constitution Day and the commemoration of the eighth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“She’s trying to cut across the grain because everyone has been saying what a dope she is and she’s going into depth on these issues,” said Matalin. “This is a good strategy because it works and because it’s long form. In an ad or any visual form, you could never take the kind of deep dive on a lot of these issues.”

Her establishment of one of the most powerful social media brands in politics has coincided with her effort to all but drop off the mainstream media grid.

 

Since her television news blitz shortly before resigning as governor, a chaotic period in which she was even interviewed wearing waders while fishing, Palin has not appeared on cable or network television. She has issued very few statements to the media and her press contacts have become markedly less responsive to press requests. While Palin will be delivering a September 23 speech to investors in China, the event is closed to the press.

Palin’s camp did not respond to numerous requests from POLITICO seeking comment on this story.

To some degree, Palin’s strategy may be driven by necessity. The former governor has operated with a skeleton crew since leaving the governor’s office, with a team consisting of only a handful of staffers employed by her political action committee located in Virginia.

Even so, the practice of shutting out major print, television and news outlets is a sure route to obscurity—and Palin in the past has given every indication that she has an interest in continuing her career as a public figure.

But even as she’s all but vanished from the public view, Palin has managed to amplify her voice and expand her reach online. The ranks of her Facebook friends have swelled by several hundred thousand since the announcement of her resignation, after remaining somewhat static at around 500,000 through the spring and summer.

Fleischer said Palin has been able to pick up so much online momentum because “she is so exciting.”

“She represents a gigantic movement in this country that is distrustful of Washington and finds her appealing for all the same reasons that the mainstream media finds her unappealing,” Fleischer said. “This is where social networks are most effective. It lets you focus on your core constituents and fan bases, and few politicians can actually claim they have a fan base.”

Still, Fleischer warned that Palin’s ability to drive hundreds of thousands of individuals to her Facebook page will not get her past the media filter.

“Facebook is one way to go around the mainstream media, but when you add it all together the mainstream media still exists,” he said.

The former governor’s online megaphone is taken seriously enough by her opponents that the labor-affiliated group Americans United for Change started running ads on Facebook to counter Palin’s messages.

“Send Palin a message,” reads the black and white ad, which features only text and a small picture of the former governor. “Health insurance reform is too important for outright lies. Send Sarah Palin a message; tell her to stop lying about ‘death panels.’”

For those who have worked with Palin, the end-run around traditional media channels is not surprising.

“She loves the unfiltered medium because she can make her statement and not be questioned directly about any nuances,” one former Palin staffer told POLITICO. “It speaks to the power of Facebook and social networking in general. Here’s a case where Facebook postings are being picked up by [the Associated Press] and the national media. As politicians—we’re taking note of these media based on how well they’re working for her.”

Another longtime Alaska insider and close observer of Palin called the strategy “brilliant,” but said it was sad to watch her relationship with the press deteriorate to such a point.

The Alaska source noted that prior to getting picked as Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) running mate, Palin once brought cookies to reporters stuck hanging around the state capitol on a Saturday for a special legislative session.

“There was so much difficulty in her getting her message out without it being deliberately, in my opinion, twisted by members of the media,” the insider said. “Now, even if a story gets twisted, they all know they can go right to Facebook and see what she said.”

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