While it’s common for members of Congress to post talking points on Twitter and videos of their floor speeches on YouTube, such social-media sites are quickly becoming just another cog in the political spin machine. But members are posting more personal touches — what they had for dinner, their dogs at play and other mainstays of the social-media diet — on platforms such as Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest.
“Members that are able to effectively use the newer platforms will have an advantage in the future,” said JD Chang, the founder of TrendPo, a startup that analyzes political figures by looking at news mentions and interactions on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and then ranks their relevancy. Although TrendPo does not currently evaluate Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest as part of its process, the firm is interested in doing so if “adaptation reaches a certain level of saturation” among members, according to Chang.
Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has become a popular social-media platform where users can share their lives through pictures. The intended use is to take a cellphone picture, apply an artistic looking filter and then post it.
With more than 11,300 followers, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is by far the most popular member of Congress on Instagram. His RepKevinMcCarthy account shows him spending time with his family, going to sporting events and hanging out with celebrity friends. McCarthy also posts short video stories complete with photos and music. The California Republican manages his own account and frequently shares old memories on Throwback Thursdays, an Instagram tag users apply when posting pictures from their past.
McCarthy’s California colleague Darrell Issa doesn’t have as many followers (about 1,200), but he has made a name for himself by posting old pictures of his mug and “Friday Kitties” — cat memes that somehow tie into current policy issues.
“Many members of congress have gathered on Instagram this year and are really interested in learning more about the platform and how to best use it,” said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s manager of public policy and communications and a former digital strategist with the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Republican National Committee.
Facebook has responded by providing training sessions to help with best practices.
Harbath advises members to “be creative with content and be responsive to what works and doesn’t work. ... Show constituents what it’s like to be the congressman or congresswoman and that doesn’t just mean in their official capacity but also in their family life and some of their favorite hobbies. We really recommend that they look at not only sharing those behind-the-scenes videos of when they’re doing events or when they’re doing a speech. Don’t show a picture of the member at the podium; show a picture of what the member is seeing out in the crowd.”
I’ll Tumblr for You
Freshman Rep. Mark Takano’s Tumblr account has hooked many followers with its “There Will Be Charts” theme at repmarktakano.tumblr.com. The California Democrat plays off the floor charts used by members on the House and Senate floors to express himself.
Takano also cross-cuts different social-media platforms by posting various content from members such as tweets and quotes and using it to engage in conversation. Although staffers contribute greatly to Takano’s Tumblr, the lawmaker approves everything that is posted and often pitches his own ideas.
He also solicits ideas; his Tumblr’s submissions page states, “Original, informative and funny submissions about Politics and/or the Inland Empire will be considered.”
Florida GOP Rep. Trey Radel is another freshman who embraced Tumblr, but he has largely abandoned it in the wake of his November arrest for cocaine possession. Before that, Radel, an enthusiastic user of Twitter pre-arrest as well, used memes and GIFs effectively to communicate his political sentiments as well as his colorful personality. Whether he returns to reptreyradel.tumblr.com is an open question.
A virtual pinboard of sorts, Pinterest allows users to create and manage collections of images in different categories that express their interests and hobbies.
Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., maintains a fairly broad and comprehensive Pinterest board for his 100-plus followers at pinterest.com/repfinchertn08, pinning pictures of constituents who visit his office, facts of the day, legislation he supports and opposes, personal quotes and constituent services.
One trend that is growing among congressional Pinterest boards is highlighting cities within the district and linking pins to resources. Fincher does this by highlighting food, monuments, attractions and people in his district, as well as suggestions of some of the sites. He also has interns contribute to the board by making pins about themselves.
“Our office particularly loves Pinterest because it allows Congressman Fincher to show off his district on an ‘evergreen’ platform. ... We also use Pinterest to give content from our other platforms a ‘second life’ of sorts, creating new momentum for the message the moment it is pinned,” said Elizabeth Lauten, Fincher’s communications director.
Retiring Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., was inspired by her daughters to create a Pinterest account, pinterest.com/michelebachmann. She uses the site to highlight destinations in her state, quotes that inspire her, highlights of her accomplishments, her family pictures and favorite recipes. She also illustrates her passion about adoption and foster care by sharing information, stories and events.
“Social media is such an important tool for communicating with my constituents, and Pinterest is a great way for me to connect with fellow moms, wives and Minnesotans,” Bachmann told CQ Roll Call.
Something to Aspire To
Outside observers have taken notice of the uptick in social-media strategies.
Brad Fitch, head of the Congressional Management Foundation, said it extends “to the point where we’re seeing new organizational charts emerge in congressional offices, where you’re seeing people shift resources to their communications team.”
The CMF, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works with members of Congress to enhance their interactions with constituents, is expanding its Gold Mouse Awards, typically reserved for best website practices, to include a Social Media category this year.
“The goal here is to shine the light on the best practices so that other offices that are interested in following those practices have some models and some guides to follow, especially with the newer [platforms],” Fitch told CQ Roll Call. The Gold Mouse Awards will be announced in February, followed by an awards ceremony in March.
“It allows members to look human. And one of the biggest challenges that Congress often faces is the dehumanization of Congress. One of the reasons that they have a low approval rating is because it’s easy to hate people you don’t know. Social media allows members of Congress to get to know their constituents as people on both sides of the aisle,” Fitch said.
Not everyone is such a fan. Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, agrees that social media has the potential to make members “seem more likable and human and more approachable,” but she doesn’t think it conveys anything about who they really are.
“It suggests intimacy that’s not real, [the] same thing movie stars and singers do,” she said.