In today’s media environment, it makes sense that President Obama and his team of White House advisors are using Twitter to spread their message. The medium has a great deal of upside, especially to an administration that often accuses the press of treating them unfairly. However, Twitter also has a downside, because its impulsive nature can often lead to negative results. Today, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs used his official government Twitter account to endorse his favorite bike store.
(#FF is shorthand for “Follow Friday” where you encourage your Twitter community to “follow” or support that account.)
Your first reaction may be – so what? Gibbs clearly likes to bike, and talk about biking, and he wanted to support his local store. It makes him human. Agreed, that would be fine, if this was a personal Twitter account being used for personal reasons on personal time. It is not. Gibb’s Twitter account specifically says in its bio: “An official WH twitter account. Comments & messages received through official WH pages are subject to the PRA and may be archived.” In fact, next to Robert Gibbs name appears in parentheses the letters “EOP”, meaning Executive Office of the President. He is tweeting on behalf of the White House, and even the President.
Government officials using their position to endorse businesses and products creates very obvious conflicts of interest. Will every business Robert Gibbs walks into now offer him special treatment in the hopes he gives them a shout-out or endorsement? Will Revolution Cycles offer him special treatment for today’s tweet? Did he already receive special treatment from Revolution Cycles, considering his tweet specifically calls out “Ken” who helped him with his bike?
Just the fact that we are now analyzing his behavior and the tweet means that Revolution Cycles may receive considerable online traffic. Does that traffic have a value, and if so does it represent a government in-kind contribution of sorts? Congressional staffers can barely accept a hamburger in some cases, and nothing at all in others, so the financial value set by the government officials on ethics is extremely low.
If you still think this is no big deal, think of it this way: Imagine that before the next White House press briefing, Gibbs walks to the podium and says ‘Before we get started, I just want all our viewers to know how great Revolution Bikes is. You should really go there and shop.’ Would that on-camera advertisement strike you any differently?
Robert Gibbs has a position of authority, and today’s tweet represents an abuse of that power. He should refrain from making official government endorsements in the future, and immediately disclose if he received any special treatment from Revolution Cycles or any other business for that matter. The United States Office of Government Ethics should also investigate.