My two morning panels were an interesting contrast: both talked about social media and influencing Congress, but from very different perspectives. First we heard from four members of Congress who are active on Twitter. Then we heard from advocates (from Fleishman-Hillard mainly) about how to reach Congress.
First the major similarity: both panels know communication is changing, that it's becoming more decentralized and more personal. Congressman Tim Ryan (D, OH-17) said social media "accelerated the decentralization of messaging." Bill Black of Fleishman commented that most lobbyists look with horror at the idea information is being dispersed - but now organizations realize they can't afford not to be doing blogging, Twitter, etc.
But unlike the advocates' view of the future, the elected officials seem to be coping with the stream of messages, so far. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) reads all her @replies each evening. Congressman Steve Israel (D, NY-2) said he'd tweeted about Jay Bybee and gotten responses from "sophisticated" people knowledgeable about the issues, and that was valuable and had more impact on his office than messages through other channels. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R, WA-5) commented that she has email screened so only messages from Washington State residents reach her, and so far it's OK that that doesn't work on Twitter right now (McCaskill has started asking her constituents to use #mo, but they aren't tracking that yet). They'd like more staff/funding to push these ideas further - Ryan would like to organize discussions between his office and individual classrooms, for instance - but so far the mix of professional and more personal (McCaskill about a cellphone dropped in the toilet, Ryan being told he bought the wrong food during the Food Stamp Challenge) is working.
The advocates are focused on cutting through noise - and making their advocacy look authentic. They know the politicians talk about things like Ryan's stack of letters six inches tall in his district office, or Israel getting "astroturf phone calls is what we call them." John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation has heard staffers talk about hitting Reply All and getting huge numbers of bounces. Black mentioned a member of Congress getting a postcard purportedly from himself, supporting the opposite of his position.
So the advocates recommended associations reaching out beyond their members to find more supporters, though sometimes the biggest audience for your messaging campaign might be your own members ("look, we're doing something about the issue you care about!"). They suggested making things tangible - once 100 people in a district signed in support of more funding for locally grown food, Michael Bassik of Air America said MSHC Partners (his old employer) would go buy locally grown food from that district and deliver a basket along with the signatures. Pat Cleary of Fleishman talked about the Fix Housing First campaign, and how useful Twitter was for putting out a constantly updated feed of information - Black went to a fundraiser for his old boss Steny Hoyer and learned the bill would be delayed for Sherrod Brown's return, and the only people who knew were those in the Fix Housing First network. And as Bassik said, "there's still no substitute for an in-person meeting with a member of Congress."
None of that sounds much like "I sent an @reply and the senator read it." Advocates are still focused on mobilizing lots of people and on having in-person relationships with officials. Officials seem more likely to value individual, personalized messages. One questioner stood up in the elected officials session and talked about new tools being able to generate phone calls at a rate he thought Congressional offices just couldn't handle, and the same is certainly true of social media. I'm expecting a collision in the near future, and I expect the advocates' aggregate view to mostly win. My hope is that the listening tools now being developed for corporations, with evaluation of each mention's tone, will be adapted to Congressional listening. That's the only way the offices are going to be able to scale.
(Added) More on Congress and Twitter and advocacy and astroturf:
- Congress panel liveblog from Jill Miller Zimon at Writes Like She Talks
- Congress panel recap from National Journal
- Matt Bai in the New York Times on "the promise of false intimacy between politicians and voters"
- Claire McCaskill on why she tweets
- Eagle-Tribune on fake letters to their editor
One last note on the power of Twitter: Israel was delayed in getting to the panel (and John Culberson unfortunately couldn't make it because of flu). Israel tweeted "Traffic! They can figure out how I can instantly communicate with you, but not how to move a disabled car from the left lane of I-95 in DC!" A minute later, @nerdette, otherwise known as Tanya Tarr, retweeted his message and I saw it. About ten minutes later, the moderator read it to the session. Once Israel arrived, I saw Tanya taking a picture of the panel. A couple minutes later, she posted a link to the picture on Twitter. New communications in action.
The Congressional panel also marks the debut of my username on television: my question was read (though not answered) and the panel was broadcast on C-SPAN. I'm unduly amused by this. You can watch the archived session to catch all the funny bits I've left out.