Posted on July 28, 2011.
#SocialCongress: Perceptions and Use of Social Media on Capitol Hill is “the first research into Congressional staffers’ attitudes about their offices’ use of social media” and was released this week by the Congressional Management Foundation. The report is the second in a series based on research undertaken among Congressional staff in late 2010.
In the report, the authors state that “the use of social media is transformative, changing the tone, speed, and nature of the democratic dialogue.” However, staff opinions differ as to the importance and value of newer communication tools.
On the “pro” side, fans appreciate how online media are helping reach constituents who were not being reached before. Because e-media are less expensive, they help offices deliver a better reach to a broader audience. Younger staffers are more certain than senior staff (those over age 50) of the benefits of using social media and the ability of the office to “control the message” on the social media. Staff in offices charactertized as early adopters also tend to believe the social media make members of Congress more responsive and accountable to their constituents.
In contrast, a high proportion (77%) of staff from offices characterized as late adopters said that email and the internet have caused staff to worry more about information being leaked prematurely or being taken out of context. Staff in late adopting offices were less likely to believe the office has the expertise or the time to manage social media.
Study results also showed a lack of agreement on whether social media make for more or less meaningful constituent interaction. Those most directly involved in social media communications (e.g., social media managers) were more likely to have a positive view, as compared with senior managers and staff who interact with constituents using more traditional forms of communication (email, letters, etc.).
The report also compares staff opinions of the value of specific traditional and online outreach tools such as in-person, telephone, and online community meetings, member blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. For example, 12% of senior managers and social media managers (N=138) believed Twitter was “very important” for communicating with constituents, and another 39% considered Twitter “somewhat important.” The authors note that Twitter has “further penetrated Capitol Hill” since the data were collected.
A manager remarked that a lot of time is spent worrying about the message rather than the medium, and that social media tools may not be getting the attention they deserve. Most respondents believe their offices should be spending more time on communications including social media.
Overall, do Congressional staff think social media communications are worth the time spent? Only 32% of staff in late-adopting offices say yes, in contrast with 77% of staff from the early adopters. It could be interesting to revisit these results after future election cycles to examine any correlations between outreach methods used and penetration of messages that make a difference to voters.