Hill Climbers: GOPers Seek New-Media Jackpot

Posted August 6, 2010 at 4:47pm

This just in: Press releases are so 2008.

Even Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and her husband, Brian, who recently found out they were expecting a baby, didn’t send out conventional “It’s a girl” cards to their friends and family or distribute press releases to the public; they first broke the news via Twitter.

“Saying House Republicans are behind in terms of technology and new media is an old narrative,” said Patrick Bell, director of new media for McMorris Rodgers. “Now you can’t say that with a straight face.”

The Washington Republican owes some of her social media awareness to her burgeoning press team, a trio who jokingly refer to themselves as “The Dream Team,” comprising Bell, Communications Director Todd Weiner and Press Secretary Riva Belle Litman. The group, all hired within the past several months, helped launch AmericaSpeakingOut.com, where constituents can post comments and vote on issues, and the New Media Challenge, a contest where Republican Members competed to gain the most Facebook friends and Twitter followers.
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But with midterm elections approaching, the team hasn’t stopped brainstorming new initiatives.

The next item on the press office’s agenda is the iGOP Video Challenge, an effort to bring constituents closer to their Members through YouTube videos on a central site.

“One of the big goals is to humanize the Members,” Litman said. “A lot of times press releases are sent out or we’ll have videos of press conferences, but no one really knows the human side of them.”

Starting Aug. 16, GOP Members can upload videos in a wide range of narrative formats, including a day-in-the-life montage, town hall highlights and a questions-and-answers segment.

Members can share anything from personal to professional experiences, as long as it engages the constituency. Winners will be selected from those most viewed and most discussed.

“From the winning videos, we’ll see what people liked about it for future videos, and for next year’s campaign,” Weiner said. “I think some of this stuff could really go viral.”

Bell plucked the idea from his own experience with YouTube. In 2007, his video on human trafficking won third place in a National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration contest. The 27-year-old made his video package during his time as an assistant to the president for the Discovery Institute, where he worked from 2005 to 2008.

“It got 100,000 hits. I’m kind of a big deal,” Bell said with a laugh.

The Camano Island, Wash., native graduated from Pacific Lutheran University with a bachelor’s degree in political science but didn’t come into the press side of politics until his gig with the Washington state Republican Party in 2008, where he served as communications director. Bell worked with Congress to develop effective communication strategies.

In November, however, Bell attended an awards reception for the American Council of Young Political Leaders overlooking Capitol Hill, and he became hooked on the idea of working in the District.

“An opening was referred to me by a friend, and I jumped at the opportunity to come to the other Washington,” said Bell, who was hired in March. “I came to D.C. to work for [McMorris Rodgers] because she gets it when it comes to new media.”

Weiner, on the other hand, always knew he wanted to work on the Hill; he admits to being the only 13-year-old he knew to put “The Almanac of American Politics” on his Christmas wish list.

“I’ve always been interested in politics and writing,” said Weiner, 30. “No one could say they’re surprised I ended up where I am now.”

The Kenyon College alumnus is a seasoned veteran on his press team. Born in New York, he boasts 10 years of experience in Washington, including an internship with the White House, a job as a speechwriter for former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) and one as a senior writer for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

“To be able to write and communicate effectively is so important when in office,” Weiner said. “In news articles, if they aren’t hooked by the first sentence, then they move on to the sports section. It’s the same with speechwriting. You may have a captive audience, but they don’t have to listen.”

Since taking on his role with McMorris Rodgers, Weiner has drawn on his writing skills to develop press releases, speeches and talking points for the Congresswoman. He’s also utilized the help of the newest addition to the team, their 24-year-old press secretary.

Litman, who graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 2008, attributes her interest in politics to her family members, who grew up talking about current events every night at the dinner table.

“My mom was a Goldwater girl and my dad was part of Kennedy’s New Frontier,” Litman said. “I think it must be in my blood.”

Although she had never worked on the Hill before being hired by McMorris Rodgers in May, the California native has been in D.C. for almost two and a half years, working as a research assistant for the American Enterprise Institute and most recently working for the Fratelli Group, a public policy communications firm.

Since becoming press secretary, Litman has spearheaded a Republican outreach platform that seeks to make 2010 the “Year of the Republican Woman.” Litman will reach out to female bloggers, members of the media and Congressional staffers to promote the goals of conservative women in Congress.

“We don’t use social media just to update people. It’s more interactive than that,” Litman said.

“There’s no point in being on Facebook or YouTube if you’re not going to engage people. And I think we’re doing a good job of just that.”

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