It’s undeniable that social media has held an increasingly important role in the past two election cycles. But with more than 270 tweeting legislators, and with President Barack Obama alone having almost 6 million followers, is it really considered “new” media anymore?
“I think it’s just an industry standard now; everybody’s on Facebook and Twitter,” said Michael Babyak, press secretary for Rep. Patrick McHenry. “You’re able to put out information multiple times a day, interact with constituents and engage in a two-way conversation. It brings a personal touch that you might not get with just a letter.”
Babyak, a Kernersville, N.C., native, started as press secretary for the North Carolina Republican in early November. He began working for the Congressman as a staff assistant in September 2007. Since then, Babyak has donned myriad hats as legislative correspondent, deputy press secretary and new media director, a role he essentially created for himself.
“Around March last year is when Facebook and Twitter, especially for Congress, was really getting started. At that point, I was like, ‘Hey, we don’t do anything with our page; we don’t even have a Twitter account. Let’s do something about it,’” Babyak said. “So McHenry said, ‘All right great, then let’s do it and run with it.’”
One of the new media initiatives headed by the 26-year-old was a live broadcast of a town hall meeting on Ustream.com. Constituents were not only able to tune in to McHenry’s meeting online, but they also could pose questions using Facebook and Twitter, which were then answered during the broadcast. The practice is now common for Capitol Hill legislators, Babyak said.
Before stepping up to the role of press secretary earlier this month, the staffer spent three weeks campaigning and working with media in Connecticut’s 5th district for Sam Caligiuri. Although the Republican candidate lost to Rep. Christopher Murphy, not all was lost on the campaign trail.
“It gave me a highly new perspective of being on the ground, being in the dogfight and dealing with the press,” Babyak said. “Unfortunately, he lost, but it was a great experience, and made me realize what it really takes to get here.”
Although it was hectic bouncing from McHenry’s office to the campaign trail and back again, switching gears comes easily to Babyak. At Princeton University, he not only earned a bachelor’s degree in politics, but also played on the offensive line for Princeton’s football team.
“It was a defining part of my college experience, and balancing school and sports was, without a doubt, challenging,” he said. “It was an intense environment, and I think the experience taught me to stay pretty even-keeled, something that is definitely beneficial in this job.”
Babyak got his start in politics as an intern in the district office of Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) in the summer of 2006. After graduation in 2007, he moved to Washington and worked temporary jobs until the staff assistant position opened up in McHenry’s office.
Moving to the city wasn’t a difficult transition for Babyak, who said he was used to the “hustle and bustle” of the East Coast from his college days in New Jersey. In fact, he said he loves that D.C. is walkable, has a vibrant music scene and is dog-friendly, particularly around his Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Babyak envisioned pursuing a career in politics, and even imagined working on the Hill one day. But when he thought of politics, the press wasn’t the first thing that came to mind.
“I came into this job wanting to just get my foot in the door,” he said. “But as I’ve moved up, especially with the new media stuff, I really saw myself gravitating toward the press side.”
Since starting his new job, Babyak has managed the press, run the communications operations and served as a spokesperson. The main difference from his previous positions is that instead of being a helper, he is solely responsible for taking on media initiatives, new and old.
“President Obama set a really high- water mark in the use of new media for communicating with constituents and getting in touch with grass-roots movements,” he said. “From that point, Republicans really made it into something bigger. It’s been a big, concerted effort to use all these innovative platforms.”
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Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.