Politics & Government

McCrory shifts state-run Twitter, Facebook accounts back to campaign

Governor Pat McCrory answers budget bill questions on the porch of the NC Governor's Mansion Thursday, September 17, 2015.
Governor Pat McCrory answers budget bill questions on the porch of the NC Governor's Mansion Thursday, September 17, 2015. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Gov. Pat McCrory’s communications office recently handed over the passwords for the governor’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts to McCrory’s re-election campaign – a move the state Democratic Party says shouldn’t be allowed.

McCrory’s main social media accounts, @PatMcCroryNC on Twitter and Facebook.com/GovernorPat, date to before he took office and were created as he campaigned for governor. When McCrory took office in 2013, the state employees in his communications office took over those accounts, posting news and information from them and building an audience.

In recent months, as McCrory’s re-election bid geared up, the communications office handed those accounts to the campaign. The governor’s communications staff then launched separate Twitter and Facebook accounts for the governor’s office.

McCrory communications director Josh Ellis said the original accounts were never used by McCrory’s office and the campaign at the same time. Ellis said no state funds have been used for advertising on the accounts.

Ellis does not work for the McCrory campaign.

“The (@PatMcCroryNC) account was only used by our (communications) office for official state business,” Ellis said in a text message. “As an added precaution, the @GovOfficeNC was created by our office to avoid confusion and is the only Twitter account we maintain.”

The N.C. Democratic Party is criticizing the move, saying the campaign is now benefiting from the accounts – and more than 75,000 followers – that were built using government resources.

“For the last three years, Gov. McCrory’s staff has built and maintained campaign resources with taxpayer dollars,” party spokesman Ford Porter said. “Now they want to once again use those resources for campaign purposes. That’s illegal.”

Ellis says the accounts already had about 50,000 followers when the communications office took them over.

The N.C. Board of Elections doesn’t have a formal policy governing campaign social media accounts, general counsel and spokesman Josh Lawson said. “Unless you’re talking about expenditures made, social media does not fall within our statutes,” he said.

Lawson said the U.S. government has adopted guidelines under the federal Hatch Act, which restricts government employees from political activities. Those guidelines ban government employees and agencies from setting up Facebook and Twitter pages supporting political campaigns. The guidelines apply to federal employees and some state employees whose positions are funded by federal money.

Ownership of social media accounts has become a legal issue in a broader context in recent years. Lawyers and others are trying to sort out: Do Twitter and Facebook followers have value? Do they belong to the company that attracted them, or to individuals?

In 2011, for example, a cell phone company sued a former employee who kept a Twitter account he created while working there. The company argued that it was owed $2.50 for each of the employee’s 17,000 followers. The case was settled out of court under undisclosed terms and the former employee kept the Twitter account.

The @PatMcCroryNC account, and its Facebook counterpart, do not prominently list that they are now affiliated with the McCrory campaign. The Facebook profile still welcomes visitors to “Governor Pat McCrory’s official Facebook page.”

The Twitter account has about 32,000 followers – more than half of them amassed while it was the official governor’s office voice. The Facebook page has about 76,600 “likes,” which allows users to receive information from that feed.

Most posts on the campaign or state accounts highlight McCrory’s latest activities in a similar fashion.

But the campaign-controlled accounts now also occasionally provide links or pointers to his campaign website, where visitors are encouraged to contribute to his reelection bid with money or by volunteering.

Meanwhile, the newly created governor’s office accounts have a limited reach. On Twitter, @GovOfficeNC has about 830 followers and its Facebook counterpart has about 800 “likes.”

It’s unusual for politicians to transfer social media accounts between their campaigns and government offices. Attorney General Roy Cooper and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest have both had separate campaign accounts on Twitter and Facebook for years.

Other politicians don’t have to separate the two sides because their state-employed staffers don’t use their accounts. “Everything is handled by me personally,” said Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat who’s running for attorney general.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter