It’s been nearly a month since the Federal Elections Commission ruled that 1st District Representative Frank Guinta illegally accepted more than $300,000 dollars in campaign donations from his parents.
Since then Guinta has made few public appearances, and has said little about the ruling beyond a statement in May. But on Guinta’s social media accounts, it’s a very different story. Guinta's official YouTube channel features videos of his house floor speech on Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, his questioning of the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and a video message to mark Memorial Day.
Guinta’s other online feeds go even further. Last week he tweeted a photo of a meeting with a group of New Hampshire airline pilots, and he's repeatedly cheered on the Manchester Monarchs hockey team. Over the weekend, Guinta took his family out to a restaurant and posted a photo on Facebook.
It looks like business as usual – the same kind of online content a member of Congress would post if he hadn't heard top members of his party, including US Senator Kelly Ayotte, call on him to resign over campaign finance violations.
“This is the reality that they’re trying to create," says Spencer Kimball, a Republican political consultant and a Senior Scholar in Residence at Emerson College in Boston. He says in times when news coverage turns negative, political figures can lay low and stay relevant by passing up the press and sharing their messages through social media.
“There’s no press conference; there’s no probing by a reporter," Kimball continues. "The only thing you get is a statement, the only thing you get is this YouTube video that you can’t ask questions to. [He’s] trying to move the conversation, make people like you again, so bringing family pictures in – there’s got to be a picture of a dog there, I bet you if you look.”
In fact, there is a dog on Guinta’s Facebook page; a post from May 27th shows “our office dog, Mini,” posing in front of the winning submission of a congressional art competition.
But public relations professionals say there are limits to what social media posts can accomplish, even when there are dogs in the picture. Peter LaMotte is Senior Vice President and Chair of Digital Practice at Levick, a public relations firm that specializes in crisis communication. He says the posts on Guinta’s social media outlets may be frequent but the level of personal engagement is actually pretty low.
“That will work for a while, but only if you believe that the storm will pass," LaMotte says. "And it simply doesn’t look in this situation as if this is just going to go away overnight. And at some point when you’re silent on one hand and very vocal on the other, people are going to start asking questions.”
And, LaMotte says, the larger the disconnect between online and offline activities, the tougher the questions. Earlier this year Illinois Representative Aaron Schock came under scrutiny for lavish spending on travel and decorating his congressional office. He initially tried not to talk about the allegations, and his Twitter feed looked at the time much like Guinta’s does today, with lots of photos of events with the Illinois Farm Bureau and Lions Clubs. But questions mounted, the Office of Congressional Ethics launched an investigation and Schock eventually resigned.
Uncomfortable as it may be, LaMotte says politicians eventually have to address the elephant in the room – on and off the web. "Some people do this by engaging with video, turning to YouTube, making statements, that really show a human face," he says. "But posting to Facebook and Instagram once a day does not replace interacting with the public directly."
Whether Guinta will return to that kind of public engagement remains to be seen; his office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. But late Sunday night, the congressman’s official Twitter feed did post some late breaking news: