It all started in August. House Republicans, led by Rep. John Culberson, stayed behind after Speaker Pelosi put the House into recess, turned off the C-SPAN cameras and kicked out the mainstream media. Culberson was on Twitter.
He started sending messages to his followers that House Republicans weren’t happy to be in recess. They planned to stay put, he said, and work on the nation’s energy problem. Culberson convinced fellow members to Twitter and – just like that – a movement was born. Today, nine out of the top 10 elected officials on Twitter are Republicans and one, Speaker Pelosi, is a Democrat.
For all their Twitter communication success, Republicans still lost the online battle in the 2008 campaigns. But thanks to the lessons they learned, everyone from RNC chairman candidates to members of Congress to executive branch staffers is learning to use social media in their jobs.
Most are happy about these developments. But our elected officials trying to communicate better is not without controversy. For every Fast Company post about Congress’ jumping on the Web 2.0 bandwagon, there’s an article like this one from Politico, where some wonder: Isn’t it rude to be on your handheld constantly? Others ask if our elected officials shouldn’t spend time making life better for us instead of sending Twitter messages or updating their Facebook status.
There’s a happy medium here. The only reason controversy exists is because many people have never used these applications. They don’t understand that it doesn’t have to be black and white, all the time or never at all.
To me, any effort by an elected official to better communicate with constituents is welcomed. And for our representatives to make that move using social media, the hub of next-generation communications – that’s nice. Look at Congress adapting semi-quickly for a change. And look at how, as with the Republicans’ use of Twitter in August, it has helped get out their message when more traditional media weren’t available.
True, neither President Obama nor anyone else should spend his whole day on Twitter or Facebook. These people have important day jobs, after all. And no, you don’t want to Twitter through an entire meeting or a one-on-one conversation.
But, how long does it take to send a 140-character message? Less than a minute. I think people can spare a couple minutes a day to pass along valuable information to an interested audience. It’s not much. And people respond well to communicating on a more personal level, especially with their elected officials.
Besides, elected officials’ being on social media helps eliminate some of the filter. It’s easier for them to check the people they’re following on Twitter or comments on a Facebook page and weigh in than it is to wade through tons of e-mail or wait for staff to brief you. Staff certainly has a role in managing communications, but social media allow the principle to contribute as well. I like it, for instance, that President Obama finds ways to stay connected to the outside world. I hope others will follow suit.
There will be mistakes along the way; people need time to learn the ins and outs. But, they shouldn’t be criticized for trying to better communicate with their constituents. They should be praised for it.
Katie Harbath is the Director of Online Services at DCI Group. She has more than 5 years of experience in the online political sphere including work during the 2008 and 2004 Presidential Elections. Her personal blog is at www.katieharbath.com and she’s on Twitter @katieharbath. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Katie Harbath.