How to Get Heard on the Hill

Why Hill staffers haven’t finished reading that email newsletter yet.

National Journal
Peter Bell, Stacy Kaper and Brian Resnick
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Peter Bell Stacy Kaper Brian Resnick
June 18, 2014, 4 p.m.

On a re­cent Tues­day, Mi­chael Steel, press sec­ret­ary to House Speak­er John Boehner, re­ceived 543 emails in 14 hours. His first ar­rived at 4:47 a.m. “I’ve nev­er coun­ted be­fore, but it seemed like a fairly nor­mal day when we’re in ses­sion,” Steel says … in an email.

His over­stuffed in-box is hardly unique on Cap­it­ol Hill. “On the low end, I hear, are 200, 300 [mes­sages a day] for a le­gis­lat­ive as­sist­ant on the House side,” says Brad Fitch, pres­id­ent of the Con­gres­sion­al Man­age­ment Found­a­tion, a non­profit aimed at help­ing con­gres­sion­al of­fices op­er­ate more ef­fect­ively. “On the high end — 500 for a Sen­ate chief of staff.”

It would be hard enough to cut through the clut­ter if email were staffers’ only source of in­form­a­tion over­load, but that’s far from the case. Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s stra­tegic re­search team asked 273 Hill staffers when dur­ing the day they reg­u­larly used vari­ous plat­forms — from ra­dio to so­cial me­dia — to get Wash­ing­ton-fo­cused news and in­form­a­tion. Fifty-one per­cent said they bounced among four or more types of me­dia at a single point in the work­day. So how does an or­gan­iz­a­tion help en­sure that its dis­patch gets read in­stead of de­ferred or de­leted? A look at the be­ha­vi­or be­hind the num­bers sheds some light not only on how and when email news­let­ters get read, but also on why.

At least some of the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom ap­pears to be right: Staffers check their email early and try to get through their must-reads be­fore the day gets busy. They say that email re­ceived at odd hours or even after the ini­tial in-box on­slaught is less likely to be read. And they say they triage ruth­lessly by sub­ject line.

Com­mu­nic­a­tions staffers say their early-morn­ing read­ing tends to fo­cus on tip sheets sent by news out­lets, but that they might open a news­let­ter from an ad­vocacy group if it ad­dresses a hot top­ic — par­tic­u­larly one on which their boss is fo­cused. “Def­in­itely it’s the sub­ject I’m look­ing for,” says one House Demo­crat­ic com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or. “If it’s re­lated to is­sues my boss is act­ive on, I’ll read it, re­gard­less of where it’s com­ing from.”

Policy staffers look mainly for ma­ter­i­al rel­ev­ant to their policy areas, but they some­times browse news­let­ters that cov­er gen­er­al polit­ic­al news as well. One Sen­ate GOP policy staffer says he tries to skim rel­ev­ant news­let­ters upon wak­ing at 5 a.m., and con­tin­ues to mon­it­or them at the gym or dur­ing his com­mute. His list of must-reads in­cludes news­let­ters from out­side in­terest groups that are im­port­ant in his boss’s state, and those from Wash­ing­ton think tanks or ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tions that are likely to touch on is­sues his boss will need to ad­dress. Bey­ond that, “un­less it’s break­ing news on something that I re­cog­nize is a hot-but­ton is­sue of the day, then I prob­ably don’t even open it,” he says. A House GOP policy aide agrees that the morn­ing, in his case between 8 and 9, is his best win­dow for read­ing email news­let­ters, which he scans dur­ing his com­mute.

So send­ing an email with a care­fully craf­ted sub­ject line , be­fore it is bur­ied un­der 499 oth­ers, is a good start — but mak­ing sure that a news­let­ter is well timed and well pitched isn’t ne­ces­sar­ily enough. Na­tion­al Journ­al asked MailChimp, a mass-email mar­ket­ing ser­vice, to run an op­tim­iz­a­tion al­gorithm on the 3,798 @mail.sen­ate.gov and @mail.house.gov ad­dresses in its data set to see when staffers are most en­gaged with their mail. (MailChimp con­siders a re­cip­i­ent to be “en­gaged” with an email when he or she clicks on a link with­in it, re­gard­less of when the mes­sage was ori­gin­ally opened.) The com­pany found that a large num­ber of its emails hit Hill in-boxes between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. on week­days, and en­gage­ment is high dur­ing that time — but it found that en­gage­ment spikes again at around 2 p.m.

Af­ter­noon is also when those Na­tion­al Journ­al sur­veyed said they were most likely to use their com­puters to check in on so­cial me­dia and oth­er web­sites, which sug­gests that staffers find time to sit and fo­cus after lunch. But that isn’t the only reas­on they might reen­gage at their desks with a news­let­ter they opened — and aban­doned — earli­er that morn­ing.

Both the Sen­ate and House staffers men­tioned above, and sev­er­al oth­ers, said that, while they typ­ic­ally read text-only news­let­ters im­me­di­ately, when they’re read­ing on their smart­phones they treat emails that con­tain links or at­tach­ments dif­fer­ently. The devices, they say — par­tic­u­larly the Black­Berry — make view­ing such con­tent a slow, cum­ber­some, frus­trat­ing pro­cess. The House GOP policy aide says he for­wards any­thing ur­gent that re­quires an­oth­er click to his per­son­al iPhone to be con­sumed right away; oth­er­wise it has to wait un­til he can print it out and read it later. The Sen­ate GOP policy staffer, who also uses a Black­Berry, agreed that the ex­tra step is a bar­ri­er, say­ing any­thing that can be per­used in the body of an email is more likely to get read. “The ad­vant­age of email is that my Black­Berry buzzes and I’m go­ing to look at it in real time, where­as I have to wait for down­time to go on Twit­ter,” the Sen­ate staffer says. “But there is also a high­er threshold to go from look­ing at the sub­ject line to ac­tu­ally open­ing the art­icle.”

There are oth­er reas­ons a news­let­ter might not be read right away, of course. One Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship aide says he tries to keep up with emails as they come in, but on days when he spends much time on the Sen­ate floor — where elec­tron­ic devices are banned — he simply can’t read as many. He says he some­times prints out doc­u­ments sent to him through links or at­tach­ments and hauls them around, hop­ing for a chance to re­view them in the cafet­er­ia, while he’s wait­ing for a meet­ing or hear­ing to start, or on his ride home — al­though, by then, sports up­dates or “fluf­fi­er” polit­ic­al news might tem­por­ar­ily win out.

Giv­en what he goes through just to read an email news­let­ter, it’s not hard to see why he might need a break. As one re­cent former Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or puts it: “Short and to the point was easi­est for me or the most at­tract­ive. “¦ There’s so much in­form­a­tion out there and only so much time to read it.”

… … … . .

For more from Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s stra­tegic re­search team, go to our Present­a­tion Cen­ter

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