When it comes to outbound communications, successful Member offices prioritize doing one thing well. For many offices, that focus is on a robust email newsletter program. For others, it is communicating via franked mail. For some, it is engaging with constituents directly on social media like Facebook and Instagram. For a few enterprising offices, it is leading the way in cutting edge programs like peer-to-peer texting with constituents.
Very few — if any — offices have the resources to do all of these to the fullest extent possible, to the frustration of technology vendors interviewed. Within the staff cap of 18 full-time and 4 part-time staff, offices in our survey report an average of 4 staff devoted to communications, a total that often includes the Chief of Staff, who must also manage all the other parts of the office. Those who report going “all in” on one method of communication usually say that 2 or 3 staff are devoted to this particular mode of communication, eating up most of the bandwidth for outbound communication in the office.
As new technology involves an investment of money, and crucially, staff time, offices are often reluctant to try new things. The resulting impact is that staffers try to find value within existing use cases, with one Communications Director commenting, “I’m hesitant to add [new technology] unless I’m confident the return will be worth the investment. So we stick to what we know: earned media events during recess, easy-lift social posts, recycled content for the e-newsletter, and occasional targeted or paid outreach when the time is right.”
Others point to the difficulty of attracting and retaining staff who will think outside the box and evolve their communications approach, with one Chief offering that finding “talent to imagine what’s possible to what is most effective in 2019 remains challenging.”
Finding the Most Effective Platform
House offices are spread thin in the number of platforms they use, with offices using an average of 9.3 communications platforms out of 15 tested. Yet, across Congress, only four of these platforms are considered very important, and within individual offices, only one or two are prioritized. Email newsletters (45%) and Facebook (39%) rank highest. Other platforms are universally used but seldom prioritized: 96% of offices say a website is a communications channel they use but only 4% rate it most important, and 92% of offices are on Twitter but just 8% consider it most important.
These results mark the digital transition in Congress. Digital channels like email and Facebook now eclipse more traditional methods like press and franked mail, which previously commanded an inordinate amount of staff time and attention. Offices also report that the job of the typical Communications Director is split down the middle between traditional press and direct-to-constituent methods like email newsletters and social media.
In our conversations with offices, two factors emerged organically as critical factors in deciding which platforms to use: broad reach and positive feedback. Congressional offices want to go where the people are, and that means communicating with the largest number of people at once and avoiding insular “echo chambers” where they are simply “preaching to the choir,” a concern often raised in the context of social media. Offices also invariably judge the success of a given platform based on positive feedback from constituents. This includes objective measures like open rates on emails and likes or clicks on social media posts, but most important are in-person feedback the Member receives or positive replies to the email newsletter.
These goals are in tension with one another. Reaching a broad, representative cross-section of constituents means encountering critics who will give negative feedback. Oftentimes, it is the desire for positive feedback that wins out. Popular platforms that consistently generate negative feedback can be dispiriting for staff to manage, and de-emphasized or used only grudgingly.
In the survey, staff were asked to rate top communications channels on two dimensions: whether they reach a representative cross-section of constituents and whether they generate positive feedback. These results can be visualized as a scatterplot, with the tenor of interactions on one axis and representativeness on the other.
Four channels — email newsletters, traditional press, franked mail, and teletownhalls, are rated most highly on representativeness and positive interactions. Of these, all except teletownhalls are also rated as “most important,” whereas both Facebook (along with digital advertising, which mostly happens on Facebook) is the one “most important” platform that receives lower ratings. Franked mail and teletownhalls have direct costs associated with reaching constituents, which can limit adoption by budget-strapped offices. Of these, teletownhalls are more underrated, viewed favorably by offices yet not widely considered a top communications priority.
The nexus of representativeness and positive feedback define what Congressional offices consider a trusted platform. Of the four most trusted, three are primarily “offline” and one is “online” — email newsletters. Offices still see unique value in offline channels that can reach constituents who don’t actively engage with them online, via mail, phones, TV, and local media.
Beyond Facebook, social media struggles with the perception that it is not truly representative of constituents. These platforms, especially Twitter, also rank lower in offering positive feedback, although Instagram stands out as the only social media platform where negative feedback is largely absent.
The value of each communications platform is just one piece of the puzzle. Congressional offices also have their own strategic goals. Our survey asked staff about the most important goals in their offices.
Offices are most concerned with telling a story about their Member’s legislative accomplishments, and maximizing the number of people helped through constituent casework — 88% of respondents rated these as extremely or very important. The third most important goal was responding to each constituent message within a fixed timeframe (80%), followed by reaching the greatest number of constituents possible (71%).
Lesser goals dealt with the personal aspects of service: Highlighting the Member’s unique personality and approach (61%) and having personal and authentic interactions with each constituent (55%).
Offices varied in how they operationalized these goals. Seen through the lens of the typical office, maximizing outreach volume matters more for generating constituent casework than for persuading large numbers of people. One Chief of Staff explained this trend in terms of legislative paralysis in Washington. With fewer bills reaching the President’s desk for signature, this Chief explained, Members of Congress must show they can provide value by helping constituents with their problems with Federal agencies. Nor are offices waiting for constituents to come to them with casework. They use franking and digital advertising budgets to alert constituents that these services are available.
A Member of Congress we interviewed said their office prioritized franked mail to veterans, for any problems with Veterans Affairs, and to seniors, for any issues with Social Security and Medicare. This approach was also seconded in conversations with other offices.
More broadly, our interviewees told a more nuanced story about the other top priority, communicating about legislative accomplishments. While legislative discussion is clearly evident if one peruses Congressional social media feeds, many believe such messages are less prominent now than in the past. In interviews, staff and vendors conveyed an increasing reluctance on Capitol Hill generally to communicate about specific policies and legislation.
“Good government is all about engaging your constituents regardless of whether they agree with your policies.
— Capitol Hill technology expert
One franking vendor noted a shift in franking budgets from mailings about legislative accomplishments to those about constituent casework, concurrent with an overall decline in franking volume. Another interviewee expressed dismay about declining use of communications tools across the board, citing a growing fear of political attacks. “Offices don’t want to be transparent for fear of political consequence,” said this technology expert. Many vendors chose to work on Capitol Hill out of a belief in the democratic ideal of two-way dialogue between citizens and elected officials. Recent trends challenge that idealism. “Good government is all about engaging your constituents regardless of whether they agree with your policies,” they added. “The more it’s used the more you feel good about it, the less it’s used, you wonder what the issues are preventing that?”
Indeed, multiple offices said they had curtailed town hall meetings due to potential protests and disruptions, opting for alternatives like roundtables or teletownhalls (where constituents are called on the phone and can ask questions on a virtual conference call with the Member). Staff cited a fear of policy substance in communications among some of their colleagues — or noted that some offices had the opposite problem: that they were so immersed in the details of legislating that they didn’t prioritize communicating about its results.