Many offices are succeeding despite limited resources and rules constraints. A successful strategy often involves choosing one primary communications medium and focusing the majority of available staff time and attention on that channel. These strategies blend audacity — the ability to embrace a strategy that few if any other offices would try, with adaptability — relentlessly fine-tuning the execution with data on what is working and what is not.  

Rep. Vern Buchanan: Emailing Directly to 1-in-8 Constituents

Rep. Vern Buchanan’s email newsletter reaches 95,000 people, the equivalent of nearly 1 in 8 constituents of Florida’s 16th district. How his office built this subscriber list — one more than three times larger than the average reported in our survey — is no accident. 

The office credits a long-term strategy of investing in email list growth with its success. The strategy has lately involved in the direction of sending weekly emails with quick one-question polls to outside lists. Those responding can then opt in to receive the email newsletter. Because the office has patiently pursued a basic version of this strategy over multiple Congresses, it has built an uncommonly large email subscriber list for a Member of Congress. A subscriber list of this size also carries benefits not offered by other franked communications: the ability to communicate inside of election blackout periods and to not have every communication approved by the Franking Commission. 

An online survey sent by Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL)’s office.

Surveys have proven to be an effective engagement vehicle for the office. Chief of staff Dave Karvelas reports that the polls receive at least a 25% response rate, but the content must be “fair and balanced” and can’t be “the typical content, constantly reused and recycled.” 

A vast quantity of survey data on respondents also allows the office to tailor content by individual interests. Karvelas states that the office has 30 individual sublists targeted to specific issue areas or occupations, but has 10 or 12 that it uses on a regular basis. 

Because of its size and its engaged base of participants, the Buchanan email list is a strategic asset to the office, one worth investing in and devoting staff time to. Email may not be the latest technological innovation, but it’s the essential “blocking and tackling” every office needs to do, and Rep. Buchanan’s office has invested in its growth to an unusual degree. Like any asset, if it will atrophy if not tended to. If the office did nothing to grow the list, the offices believes it would shrink by 15 to 20% per year. In between the time this interview was first conducted and January 2020, the list had grown by 10,000 new subscribers. “The goal is to hit 100,000 by May 1,” says Karvelas. 

Rep. Rick Crawford: Building Constituent Relationships through Texting

Nearly all Congressional offices use Facebook. The office of Rep. Rick Crawford of Arkansas’ 1st district decided to do something very different: It shut down its Facebook page and asked constituents wanting to contact the Congressman online to text him instead. 

The decision was all about building deeper relationships with constituents, rather than having surface-level interactions with a broader audience, many of whom may live outside the district.  “We [Crawford’s staff] don’t want to open ourselves up to the whole world,” offered Crawford’s chief of staff Jonah Shumate. “We spent a lot of time moderating [Facebook and social media accounts].” 

Rep. Crawford’s newsletter announcing his office’s new texting service.

Shumate also echoed a broader disillusionment with social media platforms, which breed a high levels of “nastiness,” reflecting only a “finite amount of people that we represent.” Texting provided an alternative that was just as universal as any other major platform, one that Shumate noted was “best because it’s inherent on every phone.” 

Thus far, feedback from constituents has been positive. “The benefit is instantaneous,” says Shumate. “If they [constituents] text once or twice a year, we respond right away and they remember it.” 

Currently, the office estimates that it texts 1,000 to 2,000 constituents on a routine basis, and takes care to respond back to each message that is sent, with text chains with individual constituents that can routinely go 6 or 7 messages deep. “It is more work,” says Shumate when asked about the workload. “You’re having a normal conversation.” 

In terms of workflow, Crawford’s office delegates the “bulk” of responsibility around texting to communications staff, but legislative correspondents and legislative assistants participate in texting-related responsibilities when the subject falls under their issue areas.  

With many offices opting for more impersonal forms of communications to reach the largest audience possible, Rep. Crawford’s office has made a contrarian bet: Using new digital tools to cultivate a genuine two-way dialogue, even if it’s to a smaller audience.

Modernizing Congressional Communications