Congress Meets the New Media: How Facebook, Twitter & Social Media are Changing Communications

By Renee C. Quinn
February 8, 2011

U.S. Capitol, photo taken by Gene Quinn 11/9/2009 from in front of U.S. Supreme Court building.

Over the last two election cycles it has become clear how important it is to have a social media strategy. President Obama masterfully used various Internet and social media communications to ride a wave into office, leaving the Republicans well behind. In the 2010 election cycle the Democrats tended to do quite well on Facebook, but the Republicans gained momentum and did much better on Twitter and enjoyed greater overall “digital energy,” at least according to research conducted by the EmergingMedia Research Council.

It is safe to assume that Members of Congress are getting more involved with Social Media, and that trend should only continue to grow in coming years.  From LinkedIn to Facebook and Twitter, Social Media has taken Washington by storm.  As a result, those elected officials seem so much more within reach than they ever have before.  The question becomes, how do those on the Hill handle their new accessibility and to what level are members really getting involved in their Social Media profiles.  On Friday, February 4th, I attended the Digital Media Panel given by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP and the EmergingMedia Research Council in Washington DC which was put in place to address these very concerns. The panel topic was titled A New Congress Meets the New Media and the discussion focused on how Facebook, Twitter and other forms Social Media are changing communications with members of Congress.  

The speakers for the program were Nick Schaper, Director of Digital Media from the Office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Jon-David (JD) Schlough, New Media Consultant for Senator Harry Reid’s 2010 campaign, Adam Conner, Associate Manager for Privacy and Global Public Policy for Facebook, Inc. and Zach Clayton, Managing Director of the Emerging Media Research Council. Dr. Doug Bailey, also a Managing Director with the Emerging Media Research Council, moderated the panel.  In addition, Adam Sharp, from the Government & Politics office at Twitter, Inc was in attendance.

Zach Clayton of EMRC opened the panel by discussing how digital media is affecting those on the Hill based on a National Journal study.  He added that although there is no particular statistical significance to this bit of information, the EMRC interestingly tracked Facebook and Twitter among all of the candidates in the 2010 congressional races and found that 70% of the time the candidate with more Facebook fans won.

Moderator Doug Bailey, Managing Director of EMRC then began the panel discussion with a question for JD Schlough of Senator Reid’s.  He asked is this a staff thing or a member thing, do the members really get it, do they appreciate it and are they coming of age?

JD responded with saying,

I think it is a staff thing in as much as you have to decide what the manifestation of your communication strategy is.  In digital, the senators definitely understand how the world is changing and they know about these tools and are aware about their use.  But like a communications operation will run on the Hill or on a campaign a staffer is going to be relied upon to articulate and operationalize the message in Social Media.  Members have different strategies and a lot of that depends upon their personal brand but how you manifest that in your communications I think will continue to rely on staff.

Dr. Bailey stated that there was a study done recently by the Congressional Management Foundation of 250 staffers and what was found was that 97% of the 250 staffers felt that email and the like had increased messages from constituents; 57% felt that email had made members more accountable and 65% felt it had reduced the quality of constituents messages.  He then asked the panel how does that play out in the impact on offices?

Nick Schaper, of Speaker Boehner’s office, responded with saying it remains to be seen with the advent of new forms of communication just what the impact will be but that yes they were getting more messages, and the challenge they were currently going though is how do they deal with the increase without adding millions and millions of dollars to the budget.  He said that Social Media is a piece in that puzzle, but there are every day communications, such as email, and just making sure that they are tracking and reporting everything that is going on can be a challenge.

The amount of phone calls and emails, which was significant before, are overwhelming now.  We now have a call center set up and we have a number of people set up that are just managing these forms of communications.  And what we’ve tried to do is to put in place programs and systems that have allowed us to look at a single picture of everybody that is contacting us and to desilo all of the data… …trying to be efficient as possible using Social Media and using traditional tools together.

Dr. Bailey then asked if in a typical Hill office use of social media tools integrated into the regular communications of the office or if it was off in its own corner of the office by itself?  Nick said it is definitely changing and that he does see communication directors, press secretaries and sometimes even legislative staff that are really digging in and aggressively using social media to get the message out.

Adam Conner, Associate Manager for Privacy and Global Public Policy for Facebook, Inc.,

It is a really important responsibility within an office internally.  We’ve created these great tools where people can put in this great input and it’s really important that input to not die with the Internet person and to not terminate there.  I’m always someone who evangelizes that internally within an operation, you should be collecting a sentiment report, you should be pulling quotes, you should be putting together some kind of report that goes literally to the highest level, to the member, to the Chief of Staff, to the directors so that all of this great input from people who think they are speaking to your office or your campaign or a member, doesn’t just stop at the person who you decide to take care of the Internet.  That sentiment is from the people that are taking the time to contact you and at some level that deserves to be relayed to the people that they think they are contacting.

Zach added that he describes Social Media use in 3 phases.  First, Social Media is Novelty and Interesting – Where they see people are talking about them and need to keep on eye on it and maybe we’ll engage with them.  Second, Social Media is Serious – Where people are hired whose job titles are to understand what is going on and let’s engage in it; done primarily through the Communication area where Social Media is a distribution channel for getting their message out.    And the third phase (Which they are really transitioning into) is what he calls Social Organizational Design, where social media becomes a tool for touching every single part of the campaign or an office or a company.

In other words, you generate ideas by listening to others who are communicating with you; you improve the service of constituent relations or of customer service through engaging back and forth in these channels.  What you see in that third phase is that the organization is forced to become more open.  Social Media lowers barriers to communication as an organization.  Often times people will ask, “Where is this all going?”  In some ways, social organizational design has already arrived.  It is just a question of how quickly all of the different teams in an organization start to embrace the way that social media can help them communicate more closely with whoever their stake holders are.

JD agreed with Zach’s but added,

What you are referring to as an organized approach I would also add to that an integrated approach.  I think strategically where we see a lot of gain for organizations is using an integrated approach to drive conversations.  You could always use this as a one-way communication, but conversations are what are really powerful, being able to have a dialog with people that you otherwise would not have and the only way to do that in an efficient manner is to implement a fully integrated approach.

Nick Schaper, on the question of member engagement verses staff engagement,

Look no further than the first interview that the new speaker did with Bryan Williams after he was sworn in.  Williams asked him where he got his strength from and the speaker spoke about walking his district, connecting with the American people and the third thing he said was that he goes on his Facebook page in the morning and looks at comments that folks are making so if you’d like to reach him go on his Facebook page and send him a message in the morning.  And that I think cascades down to all of our members.  They see that as a great example.

Adam then added that Politicians have a very natural instinct for finding things that are going to benefit them and talking to more constituents and voters are going to have a natural winning effect.  He told an anecdotal story that a friend of his told to him.

A couple of years ago, two candidates were running for City Counsel at the same time.  One of whom was only using traditional media, and one who was using traditional and new media.   Ten years later they were both going to run for mayor and ten years later they were both going to run for senate and it was the guy who had been building his social media following, email list and all of the resources on-line verses the guy who was doing it traditionally, who do you think is going to win that race?  I think it’s inevitably the more connected ones who have been thinking about this and being  proactive about this are going to naturally win more elections.

It is clear that the reach of Social Media is only growing. Whether you are a politician running for local, state or federal office, or a corporation, small business or independent inventor trying to promote your product you need to have a strategy in place. Communications in the 21st century are the same as they once were, and old patterns alone do not lead to success in the current digital age. Viral communications enabled by social media is critical if you are to keep up with ever evolving technologically savvy consumers.

The Author

Renee C. Quinn

Renee C. Quinn Renée C Quinn is the Chief Operating Officer of IPWatchdog, Inc. She has worked with IPWatchdog since April 2006, where she is in charge of all of the day to day, behind-the-scenes operations of IPWatchdog. She handles all public relations, marketing and advertising inquiries and is the first point of contact for IPWatchdog.  One of her primary responsibilities with IPWatchdog includes soliciting, approving and preparing guest contributions for publication on IPWatchdog.  In addition, Renée is the producer for the IPWatchdog Weekly Webinar series, the IPWatchdog Institute Suite of courses and is responsible for planing the IPWatchdog Patent Masters Symposium events.

Renée holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and a Masters of Business Administration. She writes on various business and social media topics for IPWatchdog.com and is available to consult with individuals and businesses on how to effectively establish a successful marketing and brand building campaign.

Click to contact Renee via e-mail.

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