With eyes darting between Twitter livestreams on computer monitors, C-SPAN on TV and a projection of MSNBC on the wall, House Republican staffers are applying months of media lessons in a Capitol hideaway.
The operations center that is periodically set up in Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ office space allows GOP staffers from around the House to implement strategies learned in GOP Labs, a media education series that the Washington state Republican started in January.
The seminars focus mainly on social media and have featured experts from Google, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Members and their staffs can learn about all things Web-related, from online advertising to Web design to blogging.
“Our goal with GOP Labs was simply to tap into the sentiments in those online conversations and to equip our Members with the tools to respond,” McMorris Rodgers said in an email. She leads the effort in her role as vice chairwoman of the House Republican Conference.
“I truly believe that when House Republicans collaborate, good things happen,” she said.
For high-profile events such as the State of the Union, staffers gathered in McMorris Rodgers’ Capitol hideaway to engage constituents online and track their reactions. The plan is to continue using the space to influence online conversations on upcoming issues, such as discussions of the next continuing resolution.
In August, the room was abuzz with activity as the debt ceiling debate came to a conclusion. Staffers in the room followed the debate from multiple angles, such as Democratic lawmakers’ interviews on TV and Twitter responses to the unexpected appearance of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in the Capitol.
It’s what staffers have been charged with for decades: Know what the people are talking about so that Members and offices can use it to their advantage.
The only difference is that now it happens much more quickly and can be much more targeted. The Conference can also generate its own media. For example, one intern created a “Balance the Budget” video in GOP Labs that weaves President Ronald Reagan’s federal budget speech from 1982 with current news clips as dramatic music plays in the background.
“I’m excited Republicans are engaging in social media and in the blogosphere,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), who stopped by the hideaway with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to hold a conference call with conservative bloggers. “Technology is changing the way we communicate. Citizen journalists on the Internet are the 21st-century versions of the pamphleteers who helped shape our democracy.”
And it isn’t just the GOP freshmen who are excited about the series.
“The entire House Republican Leadership table is united in their strong belief that social media should play an increasingly central role in connecting the public with this institution,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in an email.
McMorris Rodgers’ communications director, Todd Winer, helped keep an eye on Twitter when the debt ceiling debate came to an end in August. As Congress moves its focus to such issues as jobs, energy and health care, GOP Labs will be there to track it all, he said.
“The fight isn’t over, so this will continue,” Winer said, looking around the room.