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At convention, tea partiers work to get high-tech

William Temple, in colonial dress, and others cheer at the Tea Party Unity Rally ahead of the Republican National Convention.
William Temple, in colonial dress, and others cheer at the Tea Party Unity Rally ahead of the Republican National Convention.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • At RNC, a panel aims to help tea party members use social media
  • Members say many of them are old-school in their technology use
  • "Electric Fences" video an example of making conservative politics viral
  • Movement members say their message needs to go further, faster

Tampa, Florida (CNN) -- Matt Bruce was upset recently when he noticed how some of his fellow tea party members had failed to use social media to their best advantage.

"We were at an event to see Paul Ryan here in Florida, and I was appalled by all the progressive media that showed up and how they covered it with their social media," Bruce said. "This was in the heart of tea party country. We had like 11,000 people there, and I never saw a single tweet from any of us there.

"How can we expect our message to get beyond just the people who showed up for the rally?"

Bruce's communication expertise falls more along old-fashioned lines.

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The retired fire rescue captain hosts a nationally syndicated tea party-themed radio show, "The Captain's America." Its own podcast website boasts, "We were tea party before tea party was ever COOL! Never wavering, not faltering in my American, Christian, core, conservative, patriotic principles."

"Most of my audience here locally is 55-plus," Bruce said. "We're still doing the majority of outreach through e-mail and word of mouth. That's not good enough anymore."

Bruce knows that to break through all the political noise, he needs to join other like-minded conservatives who are working to improve their social media skills. That's why he and about 25 other grassroots activists gathered for a workshop on the topic here at the Republican National Convention.

While the RNC is better known for its speeches and networking opportunities, it's also a chance for Republican operatives to attend dozens of how-to workshops to help them get better at the art of politics.

"Obama doesn't have the corner of the market on social media," said Vincent Harris, who served on the social media panel. He runs Harris Media LLC, which manages digital campaigns for high-profile conservative candidates.

The key to helping conservatives' message go viral is speed, authenticity and good visuals, he said.

"If you want to see someone who did this right, Google a political video called 'Electric Fences.' " Harris told the attendees. As he talks, several people in the room do just that. Up comes an ad for Texas Railroad Commission candidate Roland Sledge.

Sledge ran in the Republican primary for a seat on the oil and gas regulatory agency. It depicts a politician who looks like convicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich -- a Democrat -- getting electrocuted after he relieves himself on an electric fence. As soon as the Republican candidate for this obscure but powerful local office posted the ad on his website, it went viral.

"Yes, it was random, silly and outside the box, but it got the attention of more than just conservative bloggers," Harris said. "Now we didn't win -- he had such a tiny budget -- but it captured national attention, and our message broke through."

Panelist Liba Rubenstein, Tumblr's director for outreach, said photographs are equally effective -- if not more so -- when people want to get their message out online. "You may have a good message, but sometimes it's hard to read with all that's out there," Rubenstein said. "People will always click on good still images."

The audience was clearly receptive to the advice. After Rubenstein spoke, an activist in the audience said she signed up for Tumblr while the panelists were still talking.

Harris says the way the convention itself has used social media is proof that Republicans are embracing this form of communication. Done effectively, it will help boost grassroots interest in the party, he said.

"At this convention, you do see thousands of tweets going around the convention hall. Google, Facebook -- all have a big presence here," Harris said.

"In terms of it being the convention without walls, it seems like they are doing a very good job of bringing America into the convention and bringing the ideas out of the convention and out to voters -- and you have to," Harris said.

"The typical Republican voter is not here at the convention. To reach them with our message, we've got to use more and more social media to break through -- so they'll hear us and vote for us in November."

Keep up with all the convention news at CNN.com's Politics page

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