CHICAGO – Featuring a cartoon snake named “Squeezy” and photos of adorable children, Gov. Pat Quinn’s new online campaign to get Illinoisans excited about pension reform quickly inspired mock Web pages and criticism from unions, lawmakers and the Twitterverse.
But some social media experts, and a few fellow Democrats, called it an innovative approach to a complex issue that could work in Quinn’s favor. That is, if the Chicago Democrat can capitalize on the spike in attention and overcome the parody.
“Now is when people are focusing on the site, they need to translate the talk into action,” said Darrell West, a government scholar with the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
“That’s something they need to do fast to take advantage of the momentum.”
By Monday, there were no signals of Quinn’s next steps in the self-described grassroots campaign he rolled out a day earlier.
Quinn first mentioned the campaign four months ago after an unproductive special session on pensions. He has billed it as a way to educate and “activate the public” on the worst-in-the-nation pension problem.
The website, http://thisismyillinois.com, gives a short history, summaries of the problem, a promise of future online town halls, and links to social media sites with an open comment section. It takes a lighthearted and, at times, campy tone with an orange cartoon snake called “Squeezy the Pension Python” who coils around the state Capitol.
Reaction was quick.
Some found the site hilarious and novel. SqueezyPython soon became a Twitter handle. And critics pounced on everything from the timing of the video just days before lawmakers meet to a lack of a plan. The website, which features a video with an unnamed actor, doesn’t say what will happen next.
“This is a serious problem. To kind of make fun of it, I don’t think is really productive,” said Rep. Darlene Senger, a Republican who sits on a pension committee. “I don’t see any specifics as far as a plan.”
Quinn should instead be focusing on reaching out to lawmakers and going on a statewide tour instead, she said. A leading union — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — called the website “silly.” Outspoken Quinn critic Rep. Jack Franks, a Democrat, called it “embarrassing” and said Quinn should be reaching out to rank-and-file lawmakers more.
But others said the website and online discussion was doing exactly what was intended.
“Any attention is good attention on the pension conundrum,” said Sen. Mike Noland, a Democrat also on the pension committee. “We do need the citizens of this state to take a very concerted look at this and inform policy makers.”
It isn’t new for politicians to rely on social media as the 2012 elections illustrated. But social media experts said it isn’t as common in state government yet, especially with a topic like pensions.
Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, called the Illinois site “fun.” He said there wasn’t much research on whether the approach would actually lead to action, but it had the potential to bring in more voices to the pension debate.
“There’s the hope that this brings new people to the process, or raise the awareness,” he said “These are important channels of information for lots of people.”
However, some expert warned that tackling such a complicated issue through social media also could, if not carefully monitored, distort the message and backfire.
Mana Ionescu, who founded the Chicago-based social media marketing company Lightspan Digital, said the state’s website got the simple and punchy approach right. But there wasn’t enough to tell viewers what they could do or why they should trust the website. She also said that someone identifiable should have appeared in the video over an unnamed person.
She also warned that the cartoon elements and the tone could create other issues, particularly with parodies.
“That runs a risk that your message falls flat or becomes completely different. You simply can’t open yourself for your message becoming the exact opposite,” she said. “In the social media days, people make decisions very quickly.”
Quinn’s office didn’t immediately have a response Monday to the buzz the website was generating. Quinn said Sunday that the site was a way to get the next generation involved about the most pressing issue in the state.
Illinois has roughly $85 billion in unfunded liability and the problem continues to get worse. Lawmakers have been deadlocked on a way to address to the problem while Quinn has set a Jan. 9 deadline to fix it, when the lame duck legislative session ends. Quinn says that the tools to overhaul pensions exist, including bills before legislators that could be amended.
After talks on an approach failed Quinn said he would go to the public to inspire reform.
“It’s important to attack these problems from a number of perspectives,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Democrat on the pension committee, who has sponsored pension legislation. “It certainly got people talking.”