Opening Up Secrets: Lobbyists and Social Media

I really liked this article in Politico about how lobbyists in Washington are finding it hard to contact staffers on the Hill since the they mainly use gchat, Facebook, and Twitter to communicate. It points out this is much different than the way things used to be done with snail mail and telephone and has been somewhat hard for lobbyists to adjust. But beneath the surface there is another reason why K Street doesn’t like social media: it could easily open them up to public humiliation.

Politico interviewed several lobbyists who argued “The underlying reason for this digital disconnect, numerous lobbyists say, is straightforward: They’d rather meet than tweet, plying a craft through the traditional but effective methods of sit-downs and phone calls uninhibited by 140 character limits.” To be fair it is hard to communicate complex legislation or a policy option in 140 characters, and would be hard to convince a member of Congress to change his or her mind by constantly instant messaging each other. Face to face meetings are always more beneficial and productive.

But another reason, which the story unfortunately does not get into, is that by not using social media and talking to each other in person allows them to speak honestly to each other. A member can’t admit on Twitter he does not understand the legislation that is about to be voted on, or has not had time to read all the memo’s the staff wrote for her. Even in “exploratory hearings” where the legislation is being “discussed” the whole thing is really an act to get names in the paper while most of the work is done in the back.

The majority of votes Congress takes are not life changing. It usually has something to do with an appropriation, mandates that states should or should not have to follow to receive money, or resolutions to change the name of a post office (or what’s left of them) and thank certain members of a members community. The bills that are heavily lobbied are discussed constantly between all groups that are for and against it. But these firms do not want the public to know who they represent. It is safer for them to fly under the radar and try and get as many clients as possible. While one year they could be advocating to increase oil production in the states, the next they could be hired by the nuclear industry to try and get Congress to appropriate funds to build a new plant or for Research and Development.

If you saw the movie Casino Jack you know what I am talking about. Firms hated the fact Abramoff was opening up restaurants and getting on the covers of magazines. It was bad for business. Just like any business they would rather be making money and the only mention in newspapers is from the advertisements they pay to put in them. Having conversations online is completely the opposite of what they want. Many top lobbyists have strong connections with members who they lobby and can be blunt with them. Can you, and should you be, honest on Twitter: of course. Do lobbyists want to be: no. They represent their client’s agenda to those in Washington that can affect policy and that’s it.

It is also not a lobbyists job to be Public Relations managers. Social media is a great way to get messages out to the public and give them information needed to make a decision. But lobbyists are skeemie insiders. At times it may not even benefit for them to use the public because it diminishes their ability to say to clients they need them. Only doing online campaigns, letter writing, phone banking, and other bread and butter methods, are cheaper than hiring someone on K Street but lobbyists and their firms need to air confidence in their ability to effectively communicate their message to Congress without all the hustle and bustle of a campaign. This is especially for the clients who have deep pockets but are not looking for the spotlight.

What also scares lobbying firms about social media is when they represent something so controversial that it could blow up in their face. No firm wants to be known as the one who represented a free trade act that wound up sending jobs overseas, or successfully passed a bill that appropriated funds to build a nuclear power plant that wound up having a meltdown. It is just not worth it, and neither is it for them to use social media.

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