Digital media technology is storming Washington, Capitol Hill and Congress. The last three years have witnessed a presidential campaign with unprecedented online success; the rapid adoption of social platforms by congressional representatives and their staffs; political events broken, discussed and resolved entirely online; and the growing importance of digital tools for reaching the media and constituents.
Despite the public profile of these developments, little is known about how digital media is changing the internal workings of Capitol Hill. The Emerging Media Research Council decided to address that question by researching existing knowledge and conducting a series of in-depth interviews with Capitol Hill staffers. Our approach was intentionally different from existing surveys that have been conducted on the topic; through interviews we wanted to push back, listen, and understand in the ways that only qualitative research allows.
Through our study we uncovered several key themes -- some of them quite expected, while others more surprising:
Growing adoption and use
In studies and in our interviews, Congressional staff reported increasing use of digital tools, both personally and for their offices. Twitter and Facebook experienced the most growth.
Traditional media remains powerful
Traditional news outlets and traditional platforms (such as newspapers and television) remain vital for offices' communications efforts and for staff personal news consumption.
Two-way conversation is limited
Most staffers we interviewed were hesitant to use social platforms for two-way conversation with constituents. Most staff said they valued these tools primarily for messaging "out" to the constituents.
Digital media is widely used as a "thermometer"
Our interview participants consistently praised the value of social platforms and digital tools for "checking the pulse" of key political or policy issues, and for testing the efficacy of new communications language.
Online advocacy campaigns have limited penetration to congressional offices
Despite increasing use of digital media by advocacy groups, most staffers said their office had never heard from such a group online.
Congressional staff are the digital drivers
Though many members of Congress are interested in digital media, our interviews strongly suggested that communications staff are the key actors in the future of Congress' online presence.
The Emerging Media Research Council works with Fortune 1000 companies and major associations to help them value their digital marketing efforts through competitive benchmarking, cutting-edge research, and advisory services. You can obtain a copy of EMRC's full report on Digital Media & The Hill here.
Follow Zach Clayton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/zsclayton