GOP leads media charge

Now Republicans are charging ahead with their own social media agendas, which are becoming more prominent in state elections and day-to-day outreach to constituents.

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House Republicans are particularly active. They started the New Media Caucus last year, although it didn’t launch a website until August. Since then, members have been holding one or two briefings a month to teach staffers about new tools. Apple, YouTube and U-Stream, a live video-streaming service, have been on hand to show off the technology.

Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) is a founding member of the New Media Caucus. His office uses Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube to share information about issues and votes. He also uses a tool called Amplify, which shows what he is reading, and social network Utterli. Constituents can sign up for text-message alerts from his office, and he webcasts townhall meetings on BlogTV.com.

“He saw a void in our own offices’ communication after the Obama campaign … and we’ve been running with it ever since,” said Ryan Walker, Latta’s chief of staff. “It’s been easier than I thought to get people on board.”

Reps. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), Rob Wittman (R-Va.) and John Culberson (R-Texas) helped launch the New Media Caucus and organized a summer visit to Silicon Valley. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has a YouTube channel and uploads his podcasts to iTunes.

“Social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have become an indispensable component of House Republicans’ efforts to communicate our better solutions to the American people,” Boehner said. “The Web allows us to not only deliver a clear, unfiltered message directly to the public, but also serves as an open forum where we can receive feedback from our constituents.”

Boehner, who took his own trip to Silicon Valley, said his blog — gopleader.gov/blog — received thousands of comments and questions about healthcare alone last week.

Some recent gubernatorial races also successfully used social media tactics. Republican Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell’s campaign in Virginia, for example, had 31,000 fans on Facebook, compared with the 200 fans of his opponent Creigh Deeds. The campaign hired an online strategy team that used video, blog posts, e-mail, mobile, Facebook updates, Twitter and an online action network on Ning “to create an echo chamber around the campaign’s message,” said Mindy Finn, a partner at Engage, a political media firm that handled online strategy for McDonnell’s campaign.

Finn said some supporters interacted with the campaign through only one of those social media channels, but many received information through multiple channels.

Republican Chris Christie also won his bid for New Jersey’s governor’s mansion, and had more than twice as many Facebook fans as his opponent, Gov. Jon Corzine.

Adam Conner, associate manager of privacy and public policy for Facebook and former director of online communications for Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), said that while House Republicans have led the recent social media charge in Congress, he is also working with Senate members, such as John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), in ramping up their use of Facebook.

“It has less to do with party lines and more to do with individuals taking the lead in both chambers and both parties,” Conner said. “A lot of colleagues are following more cautiously and dipping their toes in the water.”

Of the gubernatorial races, Conner said social media is not “a silver bullet.”

“Setting up a [Facebook] page doesn’t automatically win you an election,” he said.

 In Congress, social media participation is, in many cases, a question of resources. Members of both the House and Senate are hiring new-media directors. Those who can’t afford to hire online strategists are integrating that role with their media staffers. Job descriptions for press secretaries and communication managers now often require Web skills.

“A year ago, that would never have been a job requirement,” said Shana Glickfield, a Washington new-media consultant. “Very few offices can afford separate new-media directors, but the fact that they’re investing in this area is very telling.”

Democrats are not standing idly by. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) both have new-media specialists in their offices. So does Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

There are still some hurdles to jumping on the social media bandwagon. Both chambers have rules about official communications between Congress and constituents, but they have not been thoroughly updated to accommodate sites like Twitter.

“This is still an unpoliced universe when it comes to franking rules,” Walker said. “We don’t want to step out there and be a bad example. … At the same time, we try to make sure we stay true to the medium. It’s a free flow of information. We don’t want to get into the situation where every tweet or post on Facebook has to be franked first. That goes counter to the technology.”

Finn said maintaining an authentic voice online is essential for candidates or officials trying to reach constituents.

“Most recognize the value of engaging with supporters online, but they often fear communicating in an open, non-controlled environment,” she said.

Twitter is fast becoming the most effective tool for many offices. According to TweetCongress, a database of congressional tweeters, 177 lawmakers are on Twitter.

Nick Schaper, new-media director in Boehner’s office, said Twitter may soon surpass YouTube in terms of reaching large numbers of constituents.

Boehner has more than 18,000 followers on Twitter. His GOPLeader Twitter account has 14,000 followers.

“It’s not just us broadcasting the message,” he said. “You get to see what other people are saying and respond to that.”