Obama's social media guru has advice for Twitter tryhards

"You cannot become an American ambassador right now without getting trained by me," Alec Ross told NBR ONLINE.

And Mr Ross knows social.

Some social media experts are longtime players who've tacked-on a few Twitter and Facebook skills. 

Mr Ross has made his own luck.

The one-time teacher in inner city Baltimore (think: The Wire) formed a not-for-profit called One Economy in 2000, focused on using technology to help the underprivileged.

In 2008, he was shoulder-tapped to head the Obama campaign's social media push, which quickly became the stuff of legend (none-the-least for helping to facilitate the tidal wave of $20 micro-donations that neutralised the Republicans' traditional spending advantage. In a historic turnaround, Obama declined generous federal funding, in the process freeing himself from campaign spending restrictions).

These days, Mr Ross is senior adviser for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In short, the guy who drives how social media is used in the pursuit of US foreign policy and diplomacy.

Certainly, social media is a big part of the foreign policy sphere these days, from Mr Obama requesting Twitter to defer a middle-of-the-night maintenance shutdown in the US, as to not disrupt Iranians using social media media to agitate (Twitter acquiesced), to Kim Dotcom's online taunts this week for US Ambassador David Heubner to meet him in Coatesville.

Alec Ross speaking at The Project Revolution conference in Auckland.

Mr Ross, in town as a guest of the US Embassy, AUT University and Social Media NZ (organisers of The Project Revolution social media conference), declined to answer questions on Dotcom and other current controversies when he sat down with NBR ONLINE.

That being the case, I asked  Mr Ross if he had any advice for Kiwi politicians on Twitter.

One of the mistakes politicians and government officials make on the internet is that they think they can comport themselves differently on the internet to real life, he says.

"They think they should apply different rules on the internet than real life. And they’re wrong.

"You have to comport yourself on the internet, and with internet-based communications, in the same manner you would on a TV news broadcast. The same rules of the road apply.

"So often times the mistakes that get made are when people tweet when they’re angry, or when they’ve had a drink or two.

"You wouldn’t shout somebody down on the street if you had TV news crews filming you and similarly you shouldn’t do it on twitter."

Some old-fashioned face-to-face diplomacy with Close Up host Mark Sainsbury ...

Mr Ross continues, "In the same way, often times when I hear about people making mistakes on social media, I say 'What time is it where they are?' And if it’s 10.30pm or 11 o’clock  I say oh-oh they’ve had a couple of glasses of wine."

At this point your correspondent snorted into his glass of water.

"And it’s true. It's absolutely true," he says.

"What I tell all of our ambassadors is that you should treat your communication on the internet with the same kind of dignity and respect you do your communication in a TV studio.

"You know how every now and then a politician can put on blue jeans or try and dress like their kids to look cool and it just looks wrong?

"It’s the same way with social media. You’ve got to do things that are natural.

"So you can be engaging, you can get involved in discussions, but you shouldn’t bend yourself in a direction that is unnatural.

"I give a lot of advice, not to just my own government officials but to presidents and prime ministers and foreign ministers all around the world. And that is the advice I give all of them."

... and TV3's Samantha Hayes. Mr Ross always requests a broadcaster displays his Twitter handle (@alecjross), which has helped him gain 375,000 followers to become the third most followed US government figure on Twitter after President Barack Obama and Senator John McCain.

At this point, NBR interjects with a tale about how many hours of his life Trevor Mallard has wasted arguing with Cameron Slater (aka Whaleoil). National's Tau Henare, Labour's Clare Curran and the Greens Gareth Hughes are among others who often also become entangled in online troll-wars – sometimes with each other.

Mr Ross nods. Life is too short to spend time trying to bring a hard right, or hard left, blogger around to your point of view, he says.

"You know, I had to learn that the hard way myself. That is a human inclination. Someone is out there making noise and I’ve got to respond to it."

Mr Ross' fellow presenter Emily Banks (associate managing editor at Mashable) webchats ahead of the conference. Read NBR's interview with Ms Banks here.

So how should pollies deal with front-foot social media comments?

"I tell them 'sleep on it'. You know, if you wake up in the morning, and in the full sobriety of the morning and you want to say the exact same thing, well then go ahead and post it.

"I don’t think you’ll find it’s a lost opportunity that you didn’t post something overnight. It’ll be just as meaningful in the morning."

Is it a human urge to get in the last word?

“It is, it is. And you’ve got to fight it off.”

But can't you be too straight down the line, and end up ignored (and here I'm thinking Steven Joyce – often so animated in real-life Q&As, but dull as dishwater on Twitter). 

"It’s a balance," Ross replies. "You’ve got to strike the right balance between being open and being dignified."

Locals at The Project Revolution (L-R): Tuanz CEO Paul Brislen, incoming Manawatu Standard digital editor Greer McDonald, MC Russell Brown.

Like others in the US government, Mr Ross uses a BlackBerry (pictured), for security reasons, but still manages a frenetic social media output.

Click below to track him on Twitter:

Click below to follow a tweeter who often drinks then posts:

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