Are high profile public officials using Twitter as a noble tool to bypass the proverbial “mainstream media filter” and communicate directly with constituencies? Or do they just see it as yet one more wall in the online echo chamber, something merely to influence and/or amplify mainstream media stories? The answer probably lies somewhere in between as I found from examining the Twitter feeds of several prominent current and former U.S. government officials.

Public Officials who ‘get it’

Some major official figures have genuinely embraced the medium. Karl Rove tweets prolifically, sparring with the Center for American Progress, and publicizing op-eds that he enjoys and with which, of course, he agrees. His Twitter behavior shows someone committed to the kind of conversation and community that typify the medium — remarkably, he follows nearly as many people as follow him. As a progressive who enjoys intelligent debate, I regularly read Rove’s op-eds in the Thursday Wall Street Journal. But until Twitter, the only public rebuttal I could make was muttering under my breath and shaking my head while riding the subway.

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Admiral Mike Mullen

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is another public official that has, I think, used Twitter very effectively. In some ways, Mullen hasn’t really embraced the communitarian nature of the Twitter community; for example, his account only follows the high profile tweeters being indexed by WeFollow.com. It is also quite possible that a staffer rather than Mullen himself is uploading the posts. That said, the posts do seem to come directly from Mullen and expose an otherwise unseen side of the country’s highest ranking military officer. His posts are chock full of empathy, enthusiasm and gratitude, doling out praise and offering candid status updates.

Here are some representative tweets from Mullen:

Recorded a video greeting to Gold Stars Wives of America. The network of support they offer each other and others in grief inspires me.

Arrived home last night, terrific trip! Rich in experience and feedback. Troops proud of difference they are making, and I am proud of them.

Neither of these men use Twitter to simply advance an agenda, show off their savvy understanding of digital media, or generate publicity for themselves. They use it for different purposes — Rove for discussion and Mullen for dispatches — but in ways that are appropriate both for their stations and for the medium.

Officials who don’t ‘get it’

There’s a counter-narrative here, however. In March, political columnist Charlie Cook railed against public officials’ use of Twitter:

I have yet to hear a single intelligent remark Twittered by an elected official… The vacuous utterances Twittered daily from members of Congress make me wonder how they have the time to spend keying in on such banalities and marveling over the narcissism implicit in their belief that anyone cares about their every single thought and reaction to contemporaneous events.

To be fair, the eloquence and insight of elected officials is pretty constrained by Twitter’s 140 character limit. And there’s a learning curve that representatives (and their staffs) have to grapple with when dealing with this new platform.

But if the way we communicate influences the way we think, how might a medium that encourages instantaneous, ineloquent and unsophisticated communication affect our legislators’ deliberative processes?

I got a possible answer when I went to TweetCongress.org, which aggregates all of the Twitter feeds of House and Senate members. As I pored through the tweets, I found myself agreeing with Cook’s worrying observation. Are our elected officials using Twitter to get around the traditional media filter and communicate directly with their constituents, something, as I’ve previously observed, the Obama campaign did well? I’ll let them speak for themselves:

Paul Ryan (R-WI): Will talk with Brian and the Judge at 10:35 am ET. To listen live: http://www.foxnews.com/radio/brianandthejudge/

Barbara Boxer (D-CA): Gearing up to talk health care w/ Carlos Watson on MSNBC- 11:05am EST, 8:05am PST. Tune in!

Mike Pence (R-IN): I’m on my way to appear on foxnews with gretawire at 10 PM EDT to talk about the Democrat #healthbill, the gov’t takeover of #healthcare

John McCain (R-AZ): Watch Hannity tonight — on @ 9:00 pm discussing health care and the need for the right reform!

Christopher Dodd (D-CT): Headed to the Senate floor to speak about Health Care reform. You can watch live on C-Span2

There certainly are some good examples of public officials using Twitter to communicate candidly with new audiences. In addition to Mullen and Rove, the British Prime Minister’s office maintains a fine Twitter account, as does Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih.

But watching our elected officials turn their Twitter accounts into publicity outlets for their cable news appearances strikes me as a sort of redundancy ad absurdum. If our representatives continue to fail to use Twitter for its nobler purposes (like thoughtful, if concise, constituent communications), I’ll continue to be reminded of this ominous quote from Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”:

People want nothing but mirrors around them to reflect them while they’re reflecting too. You know, like the senseless infinity you get from two mirrors facing each other across a narrow passage. Usually in the more vulgar kind of hotels. Reflections of reflections and echoes of echoes. No beginning and no end. No center and no purpose.

What government officials do you follow on Twitter? Which are your favorites and least favorites? Let us know in the comments below.

Mark Hannah has spent the past several years conducting sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He specializes in issues and reputation management online. Before joining the PR agency world (v-Fluence Interactive and Edelman), Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He’s more recently conducted advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign. He is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and a fellow at the Society for New Communications Research, and he serves as an awards judge for both organizations. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he’s currently pursuing a master’s in strategic communications at Columbia University. He is an independent communications consultant based in New York City and the public relations correspondent for MediaShift. You can reach him at markphannah[at]gmail[dot]com.