Tweets have more Capitol Clout than Email

Before I began my career in health care, I worked for 14 years in political and government jobs at the local, state and national level. The last of those was as press secretary for former U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht. I had helped Gil set up his first Web site, but when I left in 2000 the Internet hadn’t yet gotten to be a big thing in politics. And social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were nonexistent.

In the post-9/11 era and in the aftermath of the anthrax scare, email took over as the highest impact means for citizens to communicate with their members of Congress. This morning Gil passed along an interesting article indicating that social channels are having more impact than email campaigns. Here’s an excerpt:

Advocacy campaigns have relied heavily on email for more than two decades, but a recent survey shows that a handful of well-conceived comments on social media may be just as effective as thousands of emails.

In a poll of House and Senate offices by the Congressional Management Foundation, three quarters of senior staff said that between one and 30 comments on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were enough to grab their attention on an issue. Thirty-five percent said that fewer than 10 comments were enough.

“The contrast is shocking between Twitter volume and email volume,” CMF President and CEO Brad Fitch said.

The article, which was published just before the last election, goes on to explore some of the reasons for the higher relative impact of social compared with email.

Having worked in a congressional office, here’s what I think:

Even if an advocacy group can generate messages from several hundred constituents, those messages feel less authentic to the congressional staff than social posts do.

If I send my congressman an email, a staffer in his office reads it and will likely categorize it along with others in a report to the congressman. If I’m one of a handful of people sharing the same concern or idea, it’s not going to register.

But if mine is one of thousands, and the language of the messages are similar, it feels more like astroturf than grassroots.

An email message is the end, while a social post is a beginning. Organized campaigns can get constituents to send email messages, but those messages are invisible to the broader public.

But when you or I comment on Facebook or Twitter, we’re not just addressing our elected officials: we’re sharing sentiments with our friends and connections, too. Instead of going into the email black hole, the messages are out in the wild, and able to influence others.

Members of Congress pay attention to public opinion, but they can tell when activists are juicing the numbers.

So if you have something to say to your government officials, tweet it in your own words. It might encourage others to speak up. And over time, that can make an impact.

It’s not about flash mobs and splash. It’s about authentic involvement.

Blogs Twice as Trusted as Congress

Josh Bernoff, a Forrester analyst and co-author of Groundswell, has issued a new report and has written a new blog post, entitled “People don’t trust company blogs. What you should do about it.” As people ranked sources of information, “company blog” came in dead last, at 16 percent.

I don’t trust it.

Don’t get me wrong. I have immense respect for Josh, and I think his post does point out some useful takeaways about how a corporate blog can be successful.

But I think the question that was the basis of his research was essentially meaningless.

It’s like asking people for their approval or disapproval of Congress. Before the last election in the U.S., the approval rating for Congress was at an all-time low, I believe. Something like 9 percent.

But people don’t vote in their local elections based on their opinion of Congress as a whole; they vote based on their local member of Congress and their perception of his or her record.

As Matthew Grant said in the comments on Jeremiah Owyang’s post about this study said, what’s really interesting is that the trust rating for personal blogs was only two points higher.

“Blogs” in general have negative connotations, just like “Congress” as a whole does. But a blog is just a type of Web site; one that enables interaction. I ‘m sure lots of people go to blogs and don’t even realize they are on a blog. They just perceive it as another Web site.

People are distrustful of companies in general and politicians in general. And they’ve had good reason, as demonstrated yesterday by the Illinois governor’s arrest for trying to sell Obama’s seat in the Senate. Rod Blagojevich’s trust level is probably around 3 percent today. Even after the recent vice presidential campaign, I’m betting Sarah Palin’s approval rating in Alaska is at least 20 times that.

People make distinctions among blogs (company or personal), just as they do among members of Congress. Or governors. The Blog Council (of which Mayo Clinic is a member) has a post discussing the Forrester findings as well.

As Shel Holtz put it nearly two years ago:

I trust certain people, and some of them have blogs. Therefore, I trust their blogs. It’s the person I trust, in other words, not the medium.

So as Josh says, be different. Be one of “the good guys.” If you’re going to have a company blog, don’t make it a regurgitation of the company line. Provide useful information and an opportunity for interaction. Let people make their voices heard on your site. And listen.

Trust me!

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