Want to find one of the hottest parties in Charlotte? Look for a stack of shipping containers.
That’s where Google is throwing its invitation-only bash on Thursday night—in a physical space built out of shipping containers at Tryon and 3rd streets in Charlotte.
The party’s theme is a tribute to American innovation, from quirky inventions such as the zipper and sliced bread to hors d’oeuvres made from now-trendy farm-fresh ingredients.
The Google party also highlights another side of innovation: the rise of the tech giants as deep-pocketed political movers and shakers, just as eager to charm lawmakers with drinks and fun as any trade-association hack.
“It does seem like there are just more players at the table,” said Patrick Ruffini, president of the D.C.-based digital-strategy firm Engage.
So many, in fact, that it’s becoming crowded. Facebook will divert convention players in Charlotte with its “Apps & Drinks party” on Tuesday, in addition to cohosting with other tech companies a StartUp RockOn party on Monday featuring The Roots. And blogging and social-networking company Tumblr is hosting a convention watch party on Wednesday night.
Twitter is sending about a dozen of its top policy people to both conventions to show delegates how the horse race is playing out in real time through its daily Twitter Political Index. This measures voters’ sentiments toward President Obama and Mitt Romney based on their 140-character messages.
It makes sense for the tech companies to vie for the affection of both parties, considering the roster of legislative issues they face, from privacy to copyright to network neutrality.
“The big tech companies have had a really impressive run of good press,” said Nicco Mele, an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the former Internet operations director for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential run. “As they become institutional giants, they have a range of public-policy and political concerns. There is a very curious dance going on right now.”
Part of that dance involves not just parties but money. In 2011, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, tech and telecommunications companies spent $57 million on lobbying. That pales in comparison to the pharmaceutical industry ($241 million) or the insurance sector ($159 million), but it is a jump from the $37 million that tech spent in 2000.
In some ways, tech companies are taking the old-school route of exerting influence by hiring familiar D.C. hands for policy shops, or by tripping over themselves to throw hip parties at the conventions.
But a huge part of their strategy at the Democratic convention involves not just wooing lawmakers and delegates with snacks and liquor but also teaching them the most effective ways to use the companies’ products, tools, and applications.
“That’s one of the big things that’s different and one thing they can do in addition to normal lobbying,” said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation.
By visiting lawmakers and showing them how to use, say, Twitter or Facebook, these companies help build rapport. This, in turn, makes members look on them favorably, Allison said.
This article appears in the September 3, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.