I recently caught up with Neenz Faleafine, who has worked on a variety of political campaigns as a social media director and consultant. There’s so much talk about what social media can do for brands, but it’s just as effective in the political arena. Reputation management is even more critical there, so these lessons will definitely extrapolate to your business social marketing.

Dennis Yu: It’s good to talk to you again, Neenz. I interviewed Ekaterina Walter, who wrote the book Think Like Zuck, and I interviewed a bunch of other folks who work with big brands. But I want to talk about another industry now — politics — and you’re exactly the right person for that conversation.

Neenz Faleafine: My clients – not on purpose or by accident — are primarily leaders and politicians in Hawaii. I’ve always been drawn to politicians. It’s everything they have to endure, all of the criticism they face, while they’re expected to keep smiling and pretend everything’s OK. I love humanizing them. By the luck of life, I’ve been part of the company teams for Hawaii’s governor, Honolulu’s current mayor, and Hawaii’s new U.S. senators in Washington, D.C. But, every election year, I promise myself I’ll retire and just enjoy the local food and wine festival.

Yu: I’ve always thought you dealt with some of the most stressful areas — politics, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), scandals. What’s more, you’re just one person. How do you manage these large communities?

Faleafine: I came to the social media party late. Back in the middle of 2005, I wanted to view a photo of an event I attended, but signing up meant exposing myself, it meant being vulnerable. Immediately, I knew I had to become very secure with who I was, because socializing on social media isn’t quite the same as socializing in real-life. There’s a record of everything you do and say; it’s hard to go back once you’ve made a mistake.

In 2010 I joined my first social media team to support a long-time Kama’aina governor candidate. That’s when I began to appreciate just how much courage it takes to be a social media director. You’re representing a client in politics — a very precarious arena — on Facebook and Twitter, which are personal online spaces, and they can easily turn ugly. My candidate was running against a well-liked, native Hawaiian, two-term incumbent governor, and he was running against the Honolulu mayor, who was Samoan. I had to make sure I was prepared for any resistance from the Hawaiian community, the Samoan community, or the Polynesians, who basically vote on guidelines.

Yu: So, did social media help your clients? How did you do it? How did you evaluate success?

Faleafine: That’s the question in social media, isn’t it? How do we measure goodwill? How do we assign a monetary value to a smiley face, an emoticon, or a hashtag? It’s a good question, but in the end, we can only really measure the result. Although the race was in 2010, our candidate told his core strategy team he was interested in running a full three years earlier, and his team was pretty uncomfortable with that ambition. He was a 20-year congressman at the time, and he really didn’t need to run for governor, because he was basically guaranteed re-election as a congressman every year he ran. Why ruin a good thing?

But a couple people on his strategy team believed in the power of social media. They reasoned that they could leverage these publicity tools to show the people of Hawaii that this congressman wasn’t just a legislator — he was also a person, just like them. One of the first ideas we came up with was called Dinner 2.0.

Basically, we had dinner at somebody’s home. We invited six random people from Twitter, the congressman, his wife, and the chief of staff.

We streamed the dinner live — we didn’t filter any of the conversations, and we didn’t give instruction of any kind. I was reluctant at first. It was a risky strategy, the whole thing. But I ended up behind the camera, working behind the scenes, watching everything unfold. And you know what? It worked. These dinners really humanized the congressman. After all, many of the conversations weren’t even about politics — they were about more charming and leisurely subjects, like everyone’s pets. By the time 2010 came, we’d built a community around him based on what we accomplished at our Dinner 2.0 events. People felt like they knew him.

Yu: But when does a personal conversation become irrelevant? I know you can humanize a politician — or a brand — by showing them in another context, but we still have to communicate that official message. How personal is too personal? What’s the Goldilocks sweet spot?

Faleafine: When is personal too personal? Well, I should make it clear that what we did with this client — the congressman — was very unconventional. We can hardly use it as a standard for other politicians, brands, or organizations, because it’s extreme in many ways. But the mayor was happy with it, and the congressman was happy with it, and the public, most important, was happy with it. We had everyone hooked up with a mic everywhere we went. Unless he was at home with his wife and kids, or talking with politicians who insisted that they not be recorded, we were always rolling. We captured all these raw behind-the-scenes moments — truly documentary stuff — that showed him interacting with community leaders in a more intimate way. It was true transparency, and the voters responded well to it.

To answer your question, it would depend on the individual client. Some brands have more room to be personal than others. PlayStation can afford more levity than Goldman Sachs, naturally.

Yu: What are the top three things that politicians are afraid of in social media? The top three barriers, top three concerns — how do you address them?

Faleafine: Whether I’m pitching to a new customer or consulting an existing one, the biggest fear — the first dread — always revolves around what terrible things people might say. I work with a lot of large brands and leading politicians. They hear about the Facebook meltdowns on the news, so they consider social media as just another way for them to get misunderstood — like saying the wrong thing over the phone or making a gaffe at a press conference. But I assure them social media is so much more than that.

It’s another way to communicate with people. It’s how your customers or voters are communicating with each other. We’re not limited to just TV, radio, email, and mail. We have social media, too, so take advantage of it. There are 1 billion people on Facebook alone, and some of them might buy your product or vote you into office. When I frame it like this — like the great opportunity it is — social media isn’t quite as terrifying. It’s exciting, actually.

I believe people are smart. Smarter than me, even. If you say something online, you have to be able to back it up, but is that really so different from saying something in real-life? After all, you’re probably on record anyway as a brand or — especially — as a politician. Just give the people the information. Don’t sell it; don’t spin it. People can tell what’s true and what’s not. We used this approach in our campaign — shooting straight — and it turned out great.

Yu: What are some of your biggest wins?

Faleafine: The governor’s campaign we just talked about — that was my first big win. Every pundit in Hawaii said we’d lose. He wasn’t supposed to win, but he did — taking both the primary race and the general election in double-digits. What’s more, he wasn’t able to raise any money during the primary election. A lot of us received deferred payments. We hung onto every little fundraiser we had so we could pay the bills, pay the staff, team. I didn’t exert a huge influence on most of the local pundits; my efforts went to our social campaigns, to humanizing our candidate, to showing our transparency.

The second big win was getting the Honolulu mayor re-elected in the city’s most recent race. He was picked third again, making this a definite underdog story. In January 2012, he only had 7 percent to 11 percent media recognition. We pushed our focus to Facebook again — where the people were — and presented our case, our information, without distorting or spinning it.

Yu: How do you integrate your social strategy with your other media campaigns?

Faleafine: First, I have to convince the candidates that they need to be just as transparent as they are in their own homes. That’s social media. Show people who you really are. It can be difficult to convince the campaign team, though, when they’ve always run traditional campaigns in the past. They don’t understand social media, so they resist it. My job involves a lot of reassurance and love, pushing them to take risks that produce positive results — the kind of results they need to win. And with people who’ve been running campaigns for 20 to 30 years the old way, it often takes a lot of pushing. They have to accept they won’t control the messaging; that power goes to the social network, to the community.

Yu: How can you tell when a social media team isn’t doing a great job? I’m sure you’ve seen the signs in hundreds of clients, so what are they?

Faleafine: Too much spin, for one. Talking about your opponents a lot, for two. I see this in a lot of content, but it doesn’t really work on social media; you have to be more authentic, and pointed remarks about the candidate you’re running against don’t feel sincere. Far too many network marketers make these mistakes, and they’re really missing the point of social media.

Yu: Isn’t mudslinging effective in politics? We always see it in presidential elections — I thought it was one of the strongest tactics.

Faleafine: It’s in every political campaign, but it doesn’t have to be. We like to keep our campaigns about our candidates, and not give precious time to the competition. Besides, social media isn’t as receptive to that kind of stuff — people can interact with nasty posts by commenting on them or retweeting them. There’s opportunity for real backlash.

I really have to attest to the leadership of Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s team. They made a commitment to avoid negative competing, and it can be difficult when emotions are high and everyone’s passionate. It’s like being at a football game with your favorite team competing against their archrival. I have to remind my team — from paid staff on the phone, to volunteers still in college — that we all still live on the same island together, and we all still have to see each other at the grocery store. Hawaii isn’t that big of a place. So we stay away from dirty politics. We share our information, rather5 than bludgeoning people with it until they accept it.

Yu: When you’re building a campaign, how do you figure out how much staff you need and where you should allocate your resources? How do you set up your objectives and staff against them?

Faleafine: With social media teams, I truly believe you need a mix of paid members and volunteers, with the ratio in favor of volunteers. It’s just more authentic this way. You still need people to strategize the campaign, of course, which is where the paid members come in. In the governor’s race, I just deployed our people and watched from afar, monitoring the content we published most of all. They’re always publishing — providing information, transferring information.

We ran a few fundraisers, but we didn’t overemphasize them. There were a total of seven full-time employees and three consultants working at those events who were paid — I was a paid consultant, the rest were volunteers. We had around 20 to 30 statewide volunteers and four unpaid core team members.. They had more access to our community leaders by volunteering, so there was a real benefit to helping us out.

Yu: Do you have any secrets to identifying great volunteers and managing them well?

Faleafine: My secret is that I treat social media just like any other communication tool. If this person were sitting right in front of me, how would I talk to them? I have boundaries, of course, but I was raised to be respectful and build lasting relationships with people. I just carry that into my professional life. Many people in our industry take it personally when someone offends them or disagrees with them. How I look at it, everyone has their own opinion, and we need diversity to sustain a community. That means being offended or being disagreed with is actually a good thing. Do you really expect to agree with everyone on everything, every single day? That would be so boring; that committee would die.

Yu: Do you have any last thoughts?

Faleafine: I have to stress being responsible with what you say online. The whole world will see what you post, and you don’t get second chances. Also, a strategy without data is just an idea. It’s nothing more than a dream. You need to have a mechanism, a plan to access that data, filter it, and act on it. Base your strategic decisions in social media on your data.

Photo by Kris Kruger

About Neenz Faleafine: Born and raised in Hawaii, L.P. “Neenz” Faleafine is the CEO and community developer of Pono Media, a human-centered, data-driven strategic consulting company. Neenz calls herself a “social disruptor,” which is someone who works to change the status quo because it needs to be changed. Her tools of change are technology, social media, and strategic processes, including design thinking.