Hate on the Hill?

Though nearly all public-facing professions have embraced social media as part of their communication strategies, it seems that social media is creating headaches for Hill staffers. A recent Politico article looked at the level of acceptance and general annoyance political staffers feel toward social media. “Social media not so hot on the Hill” speaks with elected officials and congressional staffers about how social media has changed their jobs, especially how they interact with constituents.

One of the most telling quotes was, “In 140 characters: “Social media is absolutely a pain in the a—,” a Capitol Hill aide confessed to POLITICO recently. “But that’s the nature of our business.””

Social media has been instrumental in increasing a politician’s reach and ability to disseminate its messages. However, it has also presented new tasks for staffers and more feedback from the public. Hill staff must create original outward content and engage the online community — usually on a daily basis. Yet, they must devote even more time to monitoring and responding to incoming content. This includes @ tweets, direct messages and Facebook posts, while also encompassing any public social media messages that reference their employer.

This constant stream of content has changed the way constituent communication is handled. “It used to be that constituent mail came in a bag once a day,” said Congressional Management Foundation spokesman Tim Hysom. “Now it comes multiple times a day in the form of e-mail, Twitter and Facebook. It’s a lot of moving parts that makes responding a real challenge.” These moving parts, which lead to increased amount of interaction, mean that each message is not read. Instead, the content is taken almost as a sample, to “gauge the pulse and get a feel for what people are thinking out there.”

All these elements mean added responsibilities, worries and time for Hill workers. A survey by the Congressional Management Foundation found that staffers think, “Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Myspace are among the least useful forms of communication for gauging constituent views. Less than half, 42 percent, said social media had any influence on lawmakers.” It also found that, “When it comes to wielding influence, staffers said traditional mediums, such as office visits and personal letters, overwhelmingly beat all types of form e-mail and social media contact, according to the CMF study.”
Facebook, President Obama checking his Blackberry and Capitol Hill are pictured. | AP Photos
So what does that mean for all those political campaigns that are using social media in hopes of impacting politicians or legislation? Staffers said that in-person visits and personal letter are the most effecting items for influence, yet couldn’t that influence be augmented? If a social media campaign gained enough attention it could generate news articles, TV spots and other external publicity — and ultimately be the reason someone writes a letter to their senator. Once picked up by traditional mediums, like newspaper, TV and radio, the campaign is no longer just online. The online campaign’s message becomes absorbed into traditional approaches and projected to the public in a new format. Though it is likely that the message will get sent back around on social media as a result, it will also likely lead to the “methods of contact referenced in the CMF survey, such as in-person office visits and letters. This can be accomplished on a small scale (the social campaign –> TV spot –> constituent office visit is an ideal, but probably not the norm) with “contact/write/visit your senator” functionality on a website, presenting clear messages that a constituent should address with their politician and promoting offline events, such as rallies, as integral aspects of a campaign’s success. What other approaches would you use?

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