Ten-year-olds can tweet on their own.
But Councilman Jim Kenney apparently needs help. Professional help.
The at-large councilman is spending $28,800 in taxpayer money this fiscal year for the Center City-based company ChatterBlast to perfect his “social-media strategy.” The company monitors his Twitter and Facebook pages, and has posted on Kenney’s campaign-funded website.
No other Council member pays a contractor to help with Twitter. Just Kenney, who has the third-priciest staff on Council. He has 10 staff members with a payroll of $654,034, including his salary – plus another outside communications consultant.
Why does he need ChatterBlast on top of that?
“I, at 53 years old, do not have that facility,” he said. “So I need consultant advice to communicate with a group of folks who are not necessarily in my age group.”
Martin O’Rourke, the politically connected PR man whom Kenney’s office already is paying $30,000 this fiscal year for a communications contract, doesn’t have that facility, either.
“I have no clue how to tweet; I still don’t understand the mechanics of it. It’s a thing of the future,” said O’Rourke, who has earned big bucks through contracts with City Controller Alan Butkovitz’s office and the Philadelphia Parking Authority.
ChatterBlast, perhaps not coincidentally, has contracted with both of those agencies. O’Rourke said Tuesday that he has no financial stake in the company, but he “suggested that people talk with them.”
Matthew Ray, a co-founder of ChatterBlast, which calls itself a social-media marketing company, defended ChatterBlast’s work for Kenney as a good use of taxpayer dollars. He said that citizens’ problems have been solved thanks to Kenney’s account.
“Having the councilman connect with people via social media is as important as having people read the Twitter feed for Target or Kim Kardashian,” he said.
“I think everyone knows $28,000 isn’t a huge amount.”
Kenney’s account often tweets several times a day, about everything from his legislation to what he’s having for lunch. So, is ChatterBlast behind such tweets as the one quoting Irish soccer superstar George Best saying, “I spent 90 percent of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted”?
Ray said that Kenney sometimes tweets without help from ChatterBlast and that ChatterBlast sometimes tweets without input from Kenney. But most of the time, he said, Kenney comes up with the tweets and then runs them by ChatterBlast to publish. That’s what happened with the tweet about Best.
“What we actually do is type it in,” Ray said. “It’s no different when someone dictates a letter to somebody.”
Local lawyer Jared Klein learned that Kenney wasn’t manning his own Twitter account on Election Day last November when he tweeted that people should vote for Kenney, only to have Kenney’s account tweet back: “I’m not on the ballot today, but I thank you for the support and for supporting my friends!”
Except, Kenney was on the ballot.
Klein said having an outside firm tweet in the first person on behalf of an elected official can be misleading.
“A celebrity says ‘I’ and you don’t care if it’s them or their staff, but if it’s an elected official and they say ‘I’ it could be perceived that they will take some action or are endorsing a certain position,” Klein said.
Kenney somewhat contradicted Ray, saying that he sometimes tweets but approves all of ChatterBlast’s tweets.
Ray said ChatterBlast’s job is to give Kenney advice about his tweets.
“Like any other media person, we discuss what we should talk about,” he said.
ChatterBlast also posts on jameskenney.com, which is paid for by Kenney’s political campaign and solicits donations from visitors through a PayPal link.
When asked if that poses an ethical problem because taxpayers foot the bill for ChatterBlast’s contract, Ray admitted that “it would be a concern of mine.”
He later said that ChatterBlast would stop posting on the site.
“We don’t want anyone to feel that there is a conflict,” he said.
But Kenney said it’s not a problem because ChatterBlast is posting on his campaign-funded site voluntarily. “They’re not getting paid for it with taxpayers’ money,” he said.
Zack Stalberg, president of the good-government group Committee of Seventy, said that this setup “certainly seems inappropriate.” He said that potential conflicts like this are exactly why Council should make its budget more transparent.
Councilman Bill Green, who splits Twitter duties between himself and a staffer, says the staffer spends about “one-twentieth of their time” tweeting.
Desiree Peterkin Bell, Mayor Nutter’s director of communications and strategic partnerships, said the mayor now does all his own tweeting.
“The power of social media is the direct connection with the constituents,” she said. “People can see right through that if it’s not direct.”
Jane Roh, spokeswoman for Council President Darrell Clarke, declined to comment on Kenney’s contracts. She noted that former Council President Anna Verna approved them, not Clarke.
Said Roh: “As a longtime advocate for the city’s taxpayers, Council President Clarke intends to carefully review all vendor requests from members of City Council.”