Members Grapple With Media Trends

Posted November 17, 2009 at 6:30pm

If Congress had a nickel for every news article and blog post about Members’ use of Twitter, it just might be able to pay off the deficit, fund health care reform and hire the nation’s unemployed to manage its tweets.

The social media trend certainly prevails on Capitol Hill, with many offices juggling not only Twitter accounts, but also Facebook pages, Google groups, Flickr slideshows and blog postings. But Members are still grappling with how to use these tools effectively, with House leaders focusing more and more on using new media to streamline internal communication and amplify their message to the public.

“There’s a real vacuum currently on what are the best practices for using new media for communicating with constituents,— said Tim Hysom, spokesman for the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes a “more effective— Congress. “This is just a really new, uncharted territory that we’re in.—

Both Democratic and Republican leaders have staffers dedicated to developing online tools. So far, those tools have turned out to be a hodgepodge of online experiments, some more successful than others. Earlier this month, House Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office posted a blog entry on his Web site on public financing for abortion that elicited almost 1,400 comments. Democrats distributed a Flash program that allowed users to find out how the House health care bill would affect them; it was viewed more than 250,000 times.

But how to use it internally — and perhaps improve interparty communication — is even newer territory. In July, Democratic leadership unveiled one of its biggest new-media projects: an intranet Web site where staffers can privately discuss policy, find an archive of internal documents and keep up to date on House proceedings. Called DemCom, it is completely internal; only Democratic staffers can access it.

“New technologies make it possible to keep the public informed of what we’re doing and receive instant feedback,— said Katie Grant, a spokeswoman for Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). But, she added, it “also helps Democrats distribute and maintain our message across the party so that we clearly convey our achievements.—

So far, 2,800 Democratic staffers are registered on the site and hundreds use it on days when the House is in session. Most use it simply as a one-stop shop for everything from talking points to committee documents. Several staffers said the system allowed them to easily find information on policy; before, they got everything in their House e-mail inbox, which is infamously short on storage space.

Ahmed Bhadelia, Rep. Mike Honda’s (D-Calif.) online media director, said his only complaint so far is that the system is a little slow. But, he said, the system has made his job much easier.

“It’s great. It’s a wonderful clearinghouse,— said Bhadelia, who is also a legislative correspondent. “It’s searchable, which provides a huge difference.—

Republicans, meanwhile, have stuck to off-the-shelf products, using programs such as the newly released Google Wave to discuss policy privately. Plenty of cutting-edge tools are already available on the market at no cost, said Nick Schaper, Boehner’s online media director.

“E-mail is still the killer app,— he said. “I know we get a lot of them, but I don’t really see the motivation behind reinventing the wheel as far as a place to store documents.—

But the focus, he said, is on reaching the public. One of Boehner’s newest projects is GOPleader.gov/readthebill, which blasts Democrats’ lack of transparency and posts Republican bills to improve different aspects of transparency.

But which tactic is better — and which party uses social media more effectively — isn’t clear. The CMF plans to weigh in when it releases its “Gold Mouse— report next year on Member Web sites. But some of the differences in use might be attributable to the different roles of the parties, Hysom said.

“I think part of it is when you’re the party in power, you have a different sort of objective than when you’re in the minority,— Hysom said. “When you are in the minority, your job is to really highlight what’s going on in a bill that you might object to. When in the majority, you’re trying to get a message out.—