Is anything private anymore?

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privacyIn the run up to the 1996 presidential election, Tommy Baer, president of B’nai B’rith, did something that got him a lot of grief.

He publicly endorsed President Bill Clinton for a second term.


“Baer’s comments had Republican Jews seething,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency wrote at the time, “and sparked renewed controversy about whether it is appropriate for presidents of Jewish groups to endorse candidates.”

“I see no conflict of interest,” JTA quoted Baer as saying, “so long as an association is not made between Tommy Baer in my private capacity and Tommy Baer as president of B’nai B’rith.”

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The brouhaha that roiled Jewish Washington two decades ago seems quaint now. With no Facebook, no Twitter, no email or text blasts, no phone cams, the head of a Jewish organization circa 1996 might reasonably think he or she was a private person once stepping out of his or her group’s office.

Today? Fuhgeddaboutit.


“Now this stuff happens all the time,” said Matt Dorf, president and founder of West End Strategy, a communications firm, who was JTA’s Washington Bureau chief during Baer-gate. Because privacy has virtually disappeared, politicians and organizational leaders constantly grapple with how to project a public persona on social media without oversharing.

“Some people grapple with it well,” Dorf says, “and some people grapple with it badly.”

Some thought Jewish Maryland state Delegate Ariana Kelly (D-Bethesda) was oversharing when she posted accounts of her life as a divorced mother of two on her personal Facebook account. Following her arrest last month for indecent exposure and trespassing at her ex-husband’s house, those comments were removed. The charges were later dropped.

Kelly also has a delegate Facebook page where she posts about political and constituent matters.

A politician “does not have a private social media life,” Dorf says.

Sarah Horowitz, a communications professional with RH Strategic, a Washington-based public relations firm, has worked in social media for political campaigns and federal officials.

“The politicians who most effectively use social media are ones who regularly engage with their supporters,” she says.

Her advice to politicians who are learning their way around social media: “Be conversational, and share a mix of semi-personal updates, photos and policy-related items of interest to a wide audience. I also recommend folks don’t feed the trolls” — don’t goad the cranks — “and keep the humble bragging and self-promotion to a minimum.”

 

Posting ‘ferociously’

Maryland state Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery County) has “3 ½” Facebook pages. Personal and senator pages, a page dedicated to a music series she founded, and one for the District 17 Democratic Club, for which she is an administrator.

She also has two Twitter accounts and an Instagram page.

“I am conscious of my goals and the function of each page,” she says. “My goal basically is to educate, communicate and connect with friends and colleagues and constituents. I tend to post events I attended, issues I am working on.”

She says she is “quite mindful” of who is reading her pages and will set some posts as “friends only.”

“I don’t want to be vulnerable,” she says. At the same time, she doesn’t want her constituents to get the impression that she is all work and no play.

“I am a whole person,” she says. “I also picked blueberries last week. I also went to a concert” — both of which she wrote about. “I think it’s helpful for people to understand that.”

Like political Washington, the organized Jewish community is playing for high stakes when leaders take to social media. Ron Halber, who as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington is the public face of local Jewish organizations, could be speaking to B’nai B’rith’s Tommy Baer when he says, “I think that it’s difficult for anyone in a public position to try to separate their public and private personas.”

Halber has been posting “ferociously” on both sides of the Iran agreement. “When I post stuff, I do it to provide information.”

In the past, people went to meetings to gather information and argue issues, he says. “Today, a person may comment on Facebook instead.”

He adds, “I don’t think that Jewish politicians have a private persona. And I’m not interested in what comes out about their private lives.”

Steve Rabinowitz, president of Bluelight Strategies, a marketing and media firm, thinks both public and private personas have their place. “I see rabbis and Jewish communal professionals wondering if they should post about their private lives on social media,” he says.

After all, they have families and friends, and childhood friends in addition to professional connections. “How do they juggle that?”

What often results is a lowest-common-denominator mix of non-controversial posts and social media cliché.

“These folks wind up censoring themselves, and that’s too bad,” Rabinowitz says.

 

‘Photos. Always photos.’

D.C. Council Member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) saves the private for her private Facebook account.

She uses Twitter to let constituents know what she is up to and her public Facebook page “for more substantive things. You have more characters on Facebook than on Twitter,” she says. “And photos. Always photos.”

“The important thing is what your authentic voice is,” she adds. “People will see through you if you’re not authentic.”

Both Rabinowitz and Halber point to William Daroff, director of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington office, as the Jewish world’s most effective social media user.

“He’s like he’s his own media company,” Halber says. “He’s timely, relevant and smart. He’s a social influencer.”

“He was early on the scene and he’s an aggressive poster,” Rabinowitz says. “He’s an aggregator of many news stories and a reposter. I’m interested to see what he’s reading. He’s the single most active person in social media in the Jewish community.”

For his part, Daroff says he finds social media is “an amazing way to communicate with the world, to get closer to members of Congress, journalists and Jewish leaders throughout the world.

“I don’t find it a chore. I mostly multi-task — when I’m in a taxi or on a conference call. I do it when I’m in a meeting and I feel something is shareable. It’s what I do.”

Interviewed by phone from the State Department, Daroff is asked if he’s tweeting as he speaks.

“I would be,” he says, “except my hands are full and I’m walking.”

Senior Writer Suzanne Pollak contributed to this article.

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@davidholzel

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