Street Talk: Tweet Talking Woos the Influence Industry

Posted April 23, 2010 at 5:32pm

Bruce Lesley and I have something in common: We both vigorously resisted joining Twitter.

“If you’d asked me four months ago, I would’ve said, ‘No way, no how, never,'” says Lesley, president of the children’s advocacy group First Focus.

At the urging of his outside lobbyist, the Raben Group’s Licy Do Canto, Lesley reluctantly signed on to the social networking site in February — purely for professional reasons.

During the climax of the health care reform debate, First Focus teamed up on Twitter with Moms Rising, a network that has more than 8,000 followers, to put real-time pressure on Members of Congress to pass the bill. “I’m one of those converts,” Lesley says. “Twitter opens the door to a whole new set of people.”

And that is precisely why lobbyists, lobby firms and advocacy organizations like Lesley’s are tweeting.

If you haven’t noticed yet, Twitter is transforming the business of lobbying.

Not only do K Streeters use Twitter to mobilize unseen grass-roots activists around the country, but lobbyists are following Members, Congressional committees, government agencies and downtown colleagues to collect the latest intel to pass along to paying clients.

“It’s like jumping into a packed room of people and you know exactly who to listen to,” explains Do Canto, who followed the Ways and Means Committee, NBC White House reporter Chuck Todd and the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein during the health care debate. “A lobbyist is like an air-traffic controller, and you have all this on your radar screen, and you know where to look.”

Some tweeting lobbyists say the tool helps them stay plugged in to the world of politics, which is often their first — and real — passion. “A lot of us are political hacks from our past lives, so it’s our way of politically expressing ourselves,” says John Michael Gonzalez, a former chief of staff to Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) who lobbies at Peck, Madigan, Jones & Stewart.

Gregg Hartley, the chief operating officer of Cassidy & Associates, says he was thrust into the sometimes-dirty world of new media when he was a top aide to Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

“There was a Democratic operative in Missouri who was one of the pioneers in terms of how you use blogs and other online postings as part of the political attack mode,” says Hartley, who joined Twitter eight months ago. “As a result of that, I got interested in how you defend Republican candidates from that.”

In the “if you can’t beat them, hire them” department, Hartley recruited that Democratic operative, Roy Temple, to Cassidy. Both are avid tweeters.

“I try to keep up, although I’m not any sort of style-setter,” says Hartley, whose tweets range from short personal snippets about crabbing boats near his Chesapeake Bay home to updates of Senate climate-change legislation backed by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.).

“Kerry/Graham/Lieberman 2 b introduced apr 26. will not follow regular order,” he tweeted last week, relying on his no-thumbs, one-finger-at-a-time method.

Of course, I saw Hartley’s tweets only because I put aside my own aversion to information overload and catapulted myself on to Twitter.

It happened after I saw a recent update from Jason Poblete, a Facebook friend of mine, announcing a new Twitter feed for his firm, Poblete Tamargo. That got me thinking about how many lobbyists are using it and what they get out of it.

“I don’t use it socially,” Poblete says. “I prefer to keep my personal life private.”

He also doesn’t think he’s scored any new clients from his tweets, but views it instead as “value added” for existing ones. Plus, Twitter has connected him to a network of international advocates who share his interest in trade policy. “We keep each other up to date,” says Poblete, whose followers include many Members of Congress, too, including Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Dave Camp (R-Mich.).

Associations and coalitions seem to get the biggest, most immediate, bang out of Twitter because they thrive when constituents get fired up about a cause and contact their Members. Ken Gear realized this power of Twitter almost by accident.

Gear, who is executive director of Leading Builders of America, says he casually suggested that his Fix Housing First coalition, which lobbied for an extension to the homebuyer tax credit, get on Twitter.

“I am a Red Sox fan and I follow them on Twitter — or something random like that — and I said, ‘We ought to do that,'” Gear recalls.

After that, the coalition went viral.

“I was tweeting on my BlackBerry sitting in the Capitol right after meetings,” Gear says, noting a session with then-Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.).

“Rangel told us, ‘I need to hear from the Members of my committee on this. I need to hear that there’s broad support for this,'” Gear says. “We then tweeted, ‘Members of the Ways and Means Committee need to hear from you; if you live in these districts, start calling.'”

Gone are the days of waiting weeks, or months, for supporters to read about an effort in an association newsletter. Gear describes seeing instant results as his followers retweeted to their followers and their followers retweeted and thousands of calls and e-mails flowed into the Capitol from homebuilders, buyers, Realtors, home inspectors and landscapers.

“I remember sitting back in a cab coming from the Hill after tweeting some things out and seeing the response,” he says. “Our PR firm Fleishman-Hillard said, ‘We just got 800 calls in the last 20 minutes.’ It was immediate.”

Joel Packer, another lobbyist with the Raben Group, knows the feeling. He serves as executive director for the Committee for Education Funding, a client since the end of last year. Packer, who now regularly live-tweets from committee rooms, says he had never used Twitter before. “The other day, I did 40 tweets,” he says, from a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education hearing.

Just last week, the human-rights-focused Enough Project at the Center for American Progress launched a Twitter-Facebook effort to grab Members’ support for the Conflict Minerals Trade Act. As the group’s Jonathan Hutson explains, it tweeted to its followers to “politely hijack” the Facebook pages of Members urging them to sign on to the bill, which would regulate minerals from war-torn Congo.

Not surprisingly, social media jobs are among the fastest-growing in the influence industry. Ashley Mancheni, a senior program associate for the Public Affairs Council, says her organization can’t seem to satiate the interest people have on the topic — packing webinars and trainings.

“We’ve seen a big uptick in specific social media positions,” Mancheni says.

Lesley, the Twitter convert, is part of that trend: “We’re hiring somebody right now.”