Chemotherapy was making his hair fall out in clumps, so Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan decided to shave his head. After an initial response of shock from his wife, Hogan wondered how to unveil his new look in public.
He didn’t call a news conference.
Instead, the Republican turned to Facebook, the social media site where he had spent years as a private citizen honing an anti-tax message for his grass-roots organization Change Maryland, an effort that helped catapult him into office in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans more than 2 to 1.
The photo of Hogan bald-headed — arms folded, wearing a black suit, dark sunglasses and an “I’m in control” expression — was viewed by 1.5 million Facebook users, according to his office, the most of any Hogan post since he took office in January.
It was a vivid example of how the first-term governor uses Facebook to connect with his base, gain supporters and tell his story — including his grueling battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — his own way.
Unlike other social-media-savvy politicians, who favor Twitter, Snapchat, Periscope and Instagram, Hogan concentrates his efforts almost entirely on Facebook. His online presence dwarfs that of Democratic lawmakers in Annapolis who have become his main adversaries — and who were shocked, along with the rest of the party establishment, by his upset victory last November.
“The governor views social media, especially Facebook, as a way to talk directly to the people of this state without the interference of traditional media,” Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said. “He believes that it’s important to have that kind of direct contact and access with people who vote and pay taxes and live in this state.”
Hogan and his communications staff post to Facebook multiple times a day, with primary responsibility for the site going to a 25-year-old employee, Hannah Marr. Hogan communications director Matt Clark says the governor is the one who usually pens responses to various comments. He also has written many of his own health updates since announcing in June that he had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Experts say Facebook, with more than 1 billion users worldwide, has a broader audience than Twitter, Periscope and Instagram, each of which has a younger, niche following.
“Facebook is a more public domain, allows more interaction,” said Colin Delany, founder and editor of Epolitics.com, a Web site that features tools and tactics of online campaigning. “There are more provisions for pictures and video, and photos and videos tend to evoke more of an emotional response. You are able to connect, in a way, more than an e-mail, letter or Twitter ever could.”
Since taking office, Hogan has amassed more than 97,000 followers on his gubernatorial Facebook page. That’s just 1,500 fewer followers than his predecessor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who governed for eight years and has spent much of this year running for president.
The Facebook page for Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), in office for nearly two years, has fewer than 22,000 followers, in comparison. But O’Malley and McAuliffe have 111,000 and 20,400 followers on Twitter, respectively, while Hogan has a relatively meager 15,000.
Beth Becker, a social media consultant for progressive organizations and candidates, said politicians generally use Twitter to connect with “the gatekeepers,” including journalists, other politicians and people who help develop policy.
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has about 2,700 Facebook followers and generally draws only a few dozen “likes” for his posts, compared with thousands of “likes” for many of Hogan’s. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) does not have a Facebook page.
“There is a lesson to be learned from what Change Maryland was able to do on social media,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College. “It became an effective tool to bring in independents and conservative Democrats who were frustrated.”
Patrick Murray, executive director of the state Democratic party, said the organization is encouraging party activists and elected officials to use social media more effectively as part of its effort to regain ground after losing legislative seats and the governor’s mansion in 2014. A training event in September focused on how to engage with various platforms, and another session is planned for this month.
“Nothing beats face-to-face contact,” Murray said. “But it’s something we are investing time and resources in.”
The Democrat said Hogan bought some of his robust social media following, pointing out that Change Maryland paid Facebook nearly $65,ooo in the eight months before Hogan’s election to promote its posts to a broader audience. Change Maryland now has 244,000 followers and often shares posts from Hogan’s Facebook account for them to see.
“Hogan’s Facebook following was manufactured,” Murray said. “And any candidate who spends $40,000-plus buying friends can replicate his model.”
After shaving his head, Hogan wrote the Facebook post revealing what he described as his “new, aerodynamic look.” More than 45,000 people liked it. In the comments, thousands offered prayers for his recovery, and others praised him for his positive attitude.
While that post and others about Hogan’s battle with cancer boosted his Facebook numbers, the governor’s biggest one-day increase in followers came on April 27, when he posted a statement on his decision to send the National Guard into Baltimore during the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray, who was injured while in police custody and later died.
The page gained 8,607 followers that day, Mayer said. It took in another 3,000 on June 22, after a transcript of Hogan’s speech announcing his cancer diagnosis was posted.
A picture of Hogan sitting in the hospital during his first round of chemotherapy with his wife, Yumi, and daughter Jaymi, and another of Hogan receiving a blessing from Pope Francis, reached a combined 2.3 million people.
He posted photos of himself walking in a St. Patrick’s Day parade, visiting with cancer patients and holding the guitar that Tim McGraw gave him; there is also video of his young granddaughter, Daniella, jumping in puddles outside the governor’s mansion.
Many of the links on his Facebook page are to positive news coverage and editorials that support his agenda.
But there are sharper-edged posts, too.
Hogan used Facebook to criticize Democratic lawmakers who held a hearing on Hogan’s closure of the Baltimore City Detention Center, calling them “a small band of out-of-touch legislators” and accusing them of trying “to defend the indefensible, failed status-quo.”
He has also posted acerbic commentaries on O’Malley’s purchase of state-owned furniture from the governor’s mansion at bargain-basement prices.
St. Mary’s professor Eberly said such posts could prove counterproductive by alienating legislative leaders and voters — especially the Democrats who crossed party lines to vote for him.
Hogan, who announced last month that his cancer is in remission, posted that he has been looking forward to his hair growing back, but a lot of people have told him that they like the bald look and think he should keep it.
This week, Hogan posted two pictures of himself: one with a full head of hair, the other bald. He asked his Facebook friends , “What do you think — bald head or flowing locks?”
The post drew more than 3,400 likes and more than 1,000 comments. It was shared more than 1,000 times.