Who’s Behind the Boss’s Twitter?

From assistants to chiefs of staff, it takes a village to raise those tweets and Facebook posts.

Source: National Journal's Washington in the Information Age Spring 2012 survey of media-consumption habits among Washington insiders.
National Journal
Peter Bell and Stacy Kaper
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Peter Bell Stacy Kaper
July 25, 2014, 1 a.m.

A tweet from your sen­at­or or a status up­date on your rep­res­ent­at­ive’s Face­book page isn’t likely to have been com­posed solely by the law­maker him­self or her­self. As with re­sponses to con­stitu­ent mail, there is usu­ally a ma­chine be­hind the Great and Power­ful Oz. But who is op­er­at­ing the levers?

As part of a lar­ger sur­vey, Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s stra­tegic re­search team asked 125 Hill staffers who said they used Face­book and Twit­ter wheth­er they ever did so on be­half of their law­makers. Those who said yes in­cluded likely sus­pects such as press sec­ret­ar­ies, but plenty of less likely ones as well.

House and Sen­ate aides who re­cently shared in­sights in­to their of­fices’ so­cial-me­dia policies con­firmed that law­makers have vary­ing de­grees of in­volve­ment with their Twit­ter and Face­book op­er­a­tions, but rarely does a le­gis­lat­or just tap out a post and hit “send” from his or her phone or Black­Berry.

There are a few young­er or new­er mem­bers who are known for tend­ing to their Twit­ter ac­counts and tweet­ing dir­ectly, such as Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, Demo­crat­ic Sen. Cory Book­er of New Jer­sey, and Demo­crat­ic Sen. Chris Murphy of Con­necti­c­ut, but they are the ex­cep­tions rather than the norm.

Aides de­scribe a so­cial-me­dia gen­er­a­tion gap, where the older — or more “old-school” — the law­maker, the less likely he or she is to be in­tim­ately in­volved in shap­ing his or her Twit­ter or Face­book per­sona. (There are ex­cep­tions of course. Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Dana Rohra­bach­er of Cali­for­nia, 67, has served in Con­gress since 1989 and is one of the Hill’s best-known Twit­ter junkies.)

“There are three groups,” says one House Demo­crat­ic aide, who as­signs his boss to the mid-level-of-en­gage­ment camp. “There are the new­er mem­bers who don’t have any hes­it­a­tion in do­ing their own post­ings — that prob­ably stems from be­ing from a re­cent cam­paign where they were very hands-on. There are mem­bers in the middle who now re­cog­nize the value of so­cial me­dia and are in­teg­rat­ing it in­to how their of­fice works. And then there’s older mem­bers who are way be­hind, still don’t see the value, and will prob­ably nev­er catch up.”

The most com­mon scen­ario de­scribed by House and Sen­ate aides of both parties is a col­lab­or­at­ive pro­cess in which the ideas for Twit­ter or Face­book posts may come from a vari­ety of sources in the of­fice: policy aides, com­mu­nic­a­tions staffers, staff mem­bers back in the dis­trict, and, of course, the law­maker him­self or her­self.

“Twit­ter and Face­book goes through com­mu­nic­a­tions; we treat them gen­er­ally like we would a press re­lease,” says one GOP Sen­ate aide.

Of­ten the com­mu­nic­a­tions team is in charge of the draft­ing and the post­ing, usu­ally with in­put and over­sight from policy staff. Law­makers are com­monly asked to sign off on posts, fre­quently mak­ing ed­its be­fore they do. “Even though my boss is not on Twit­ter him­self, he has a pretty good grasp of what works on a me­di­um like that,” the Sen­ate aide says. Source: Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Wash­ing­ton in the In­form­a­tion Age Spring 2012 sur­vey of me­dia-con­sump­tion habits among Wash­ing­ton in­siders.

While the law­maker and policy staffers weigh in on tweets when pos­sible, the aide adds, some­times on a well-es­tab­lished is­sue there isn’t much time to hem and haw over a re­sponse on Twit­ter. Face­book, on the oth­er hand, doesn’t have the same im­me­di­acy; it lends it­self to longer mes­sages with more con­text and to nar­rat­ives.

“Twit­ter and Face­book have such dif­fer­ent audi­ences — they are really dif­fer­ent me­di­ums,” says the aide. “Re­port­ers grav­it­ate to Twit­ter — it’s bet­ter to send out a mes­sage on Twit­ter than a press re­lease — where­as your av­er­age con­stitu­ent is not on Twit­ter. Face­book hits reg­u­lar cit­izens; that’s their pre­ferred me­di­um.”

One Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide also de­scribes a col­lab­or­at­ive ap­proach, in which the boss doesn’t ac­tu­ally type in any 140-char­ac­ter mes­sages but does flag is­sues to tweet or to post on Face­book, and ed­its and ap­proves fi­nal drafts be­fore they go up. “Our di­git­al dir­ect­or takes a first stab and does the click­ing to send mes­sages out, but everything goes through my boss, who is very hands-on and makes tweaks or adds be­fore it goes out.”

There are those law­makers, typ­ic­ally older bulls, who have little if any in­volve­ment with so­cial me­dia and en­trust the job en­tirely to their staff. But more le­gis­lat­ors are re­cog­niz­ing that if they want their on­line voice to be a strong, au­thor­it­at­ive one, they need to work with the rest of the team be­hind the cur­tain.

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