Is Capitol Hill tuning out social media?

Patrick Hynes Contributor
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Yes. And no.

A recent POLITICO story titled “Social media not so hot on the Hill” no doubt caused some trade association executives to reconsider their budgets. When a member of Congress tells a major Beltway publication on the record that “there’s a lot of trolls on Twitter . . . I just got to the point that I was sick and tired of it,” one can assume that the Congressional love affair with social media is beginning to wane. Like star-struck lovers, issue advocacy campaign managers have spent too many resources chasing the proverbial shiny objects of the Internet and not enough on meaningful grasstops and grassroots communications with Members of Congress, regardless of the medium. And many consultants have too eagerly encouraged this kind of behavior to the benefit of their own bottom lines.

But does that mean the relationship is ending? Hardly, it just means that the courtship stage is ending; moving from the “this is fun and anything goes” stage to the search for more meaning and substance. Advocacy groups that realize that the marriage isn’t ending and are willing to adjust to the new environment will continue to reap the benefits of social media outreach. But this will require a shift in strategy for many, and as with marriage, it is likely that more than 50% of those in the advocacy world will ignore the signals and fail.

A close examination of the POLITICO story mentioned above bears out the true grievance from Capitol Hill: Members’ inboxes, Twitter feeds and Facebook walls are cluttered with Astroturf. This is the same grievance that Members and top staff have expressed about all Astroturf campaigns, whether they are postcard mailings, patch-through calls or faxes.

A recent survey of top Hill staff conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation titled “Communicating with Congress: Perceptions of Citizen Advocacy on Capitol Hill” demonstrates exactly what most advocacy professionals ought to know intuitively: The quality of your communication with Capitol Hill matters more than the quantity. This is true across all media.

“Congressional offices are integrating social media tools into their operations, both to gain an understanding of constituents’ opinions and to communicate information about the Member’s views. Nearly two-thirds of staff surveyed (64%) think Facebook is an important way to understand constituents’ views and nearly three-quarters (74%) think it is important for communicating their Member’s views,” reads the summary of the study.

The study also notes that Twitter “has gained acceptance on Capitol Hill,” with 42% of respondents saying it is important. Almost three-quarters of respondents say YouTube is important for sharing Members’ views.

The disparity between anecdotal evidence presented by POLITICO and the information provided in the CMF survey is easy to reconcile. An actual constituent with an original thought posting a self-produced web video onto a member’s Facebook wall and Twitter feed is significantly more meaningful than scores, or even hundreds, of uniformly-worded tweets targeted directly to @[RandomMemberofCongress]. For that matter, this single video, which would cost nothing to produce, would be exponentially more powerful than a message-tested postproduction web video, which costs thousands to produce.

Unfortunately, some advocacy professionals forget that the “social web” is just a tool to facilitate communications with decision makers. They allowed themselves to be misled by self-appointed social media gurus into spending lots of money on tactical gimmicks that are predictably ineffective. A watched phone never rings and an expensive, customized app never tweets unless someone uses it. The problem is that many advocacy groups in Washington, D.C. pay for numbers; they want thick reports with big totals. How many views your web video has and how many Facebook “likes” your op-ed receives trump actual persuasion.

But if your target audience consists of a handful of Members and staff on a specific committee, 15,000 views of a web video may be 14,990 more than you really need. And that means you are talking to a lot of people who will have little or no impact on helping you achieve your goal. This is not to say that ambient noise is immaterial to a public affairs campaign. On the contrary, it is absolutely essential. But successful campaigns do not make it their master.

As the POLITICO story highlights, strategies — and yes, gimmicks — to produce numbers for fancy reports have attracted the resources of advocacy organizations with ill effect. No doubt, many in the advocacy community will continue down this path, but the smart manager will recognize that in the world of Congressional relations, quality trumps quantity.

Patrick Hynes is the President of Hynes Communications.