- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Want to spin White House reporters?

If you’re PressSec - White House press secretary Robert Gibbs’ username on Twitter - you join the powerful social media platform and push your message across the Internet, 140 characters at a time.

Blending behind-the-scenes nuggets with a defense of President Obama’s record, White House and administration officials increasingly are communicating via Twitter.

The popular social network is operating as a Web-based clearinghouse for public statements on weighty subjects (the federal budget) and the mundane (personal grocery lists). It’s similar to a bulletin board where anyone can post short notes and users cull the pieces they see by choosing to “follow” individuals’ account.

Forget press releases. Mr. Gibbs and his deputy, Bill Burton, are now sharing news in Twitter messages. So far 33,000 people have signed up to follow Mr. Gibbs and more than 6,000 are tracking Mr. Burton. Those two officials have a ways to go to catch actor Ashton Kutcher and his 4.6 million followers.

“Wow unreal game … POTUS watched OT in his office right off the Oval Office - all of us are so proud of our great team,” Mr. Gibbs tweeted during the recent men’s Olympic hockey finals, when the Americans lost the gold-medal game to Canada in overtime. POTUS, of course, is the acronym for president of the United States.

Mr. Burton offered a midgame, inside-the-Beltway joke: “Tied! White House response, on bgnd, from a low- to midlevel administration official: USA! USA! USA!” (He was referring to a favorite administration request when talking to the press “on background” means the official won’t be identified publicly.) After the U.S. loss, Mr. Burton noted that America still led the overall medal race.

These are hardly the pronouncements one expects from the president’s top spokesmen. But as Mr. Obama’s team continues an online strategy set in place during the campaign and imported to Pennsylvania Avenue, it seems only natural they would make it a piece of a broader communications plan that extends across the government.

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice tweets about diplomacy, Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela tweets about the Western Hemisphere and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke tweets about trade.

“Welcome back, furloughed DOTers!” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood tweeted recently to his employees.

With a news cycle now measured in seconds rather than days, administration officials recognize they must embrace this rapid pace and use the same tactics as the critics who assail them and the reporters who cover them. Mr. Gibbs, who is Mr. Obama’s chief defender, has signaled that the White House won’t cede any ground online.

Twitter began four years ago as a microblogging site to follow the activities of celebrities such as Lance Armstrong, the bicycling champion whose account was the first one Mr. Gibbs followed.

Since then, it has proved to be a powerful tool for mobilizing causes and protest movements by allowing people to use common phrases to link subjects by theme. In Washington, that translates into hashtags - key words preceded by the symbol for a pound sign - such as (pound sign)whitehouse or (pound sign)gop that users key in to find connected nuggets.

“There’s a whole language, obviously, and typing with numbers and symbols that has evaded me,” Mr. Gibbs said. “I’m sure my son could teach me that far better than I could pick it up.”

Twitter also lets users communicate directly with each other, either through public messages using (at) symbols or through private messages. In many ways, it can be used as an e-mail system in which messages are completely public but limited to just 140 letters, numbers or symbols.

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