By: Dave Levinthal
October 17, 2011
There are no smoke-filled backrooms in cyberspace — or even a spot for a simple hallway conversation.
So some lobbyists are shocked these days to walk into congressional offices and find staffers communicating not by phone but through Facebook. They’re surprised to witness members of Congress transfixed by their iPhones while updating their Twitter feeds. They’re puzzled to hear government officials suggest “meeting” by Google-chat.
These communication platforms are heady stuff for many veteran influence brokers, particularly those accustomed to communicating in a slightly more corporeal manner. And while just about every politico in the nation’s capital now amplifies message and mantra through social media, professional lobbying firms, which have long ranked among D.C.’s most social and media-savvy power brokers, have largely opted out.
About half of the year’s top-grossing lobby shops have no discernible presence on either Facebook or Twitter, the nation’s two most popular social-media sites, a POLITICO analysis indicates. Most of the rest have two- or three-figure followings that would embarrass a not-particularly-popular ninth-grader.
A smattering of individual lobbyists are savvy to social media, but few use it to specifically benefit clients or their firms.
“I’m sure when lawyers or lobbyists used the telegraph for the first time, they faced this kind of issue,” said Nick Allard, chairman of Patton Boggs’s lobbying, political and election law practice. “But you cannot be a Luddite and a lobbyist. Luddite lobbyists go out of business.”
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.
“As a lobbyist, I would argue that there’s nothing better than face-to-face contact,” said Campbell Kaufman, managing partner of Cornerstone Government Affairs.
“At the end of the day, the most critical element is the quality of the people you have and the contacts they have,” said Drew Maloney, chief executive officer of Ogilvy Government Relations.
Rich Gold, a principal at Holland & Knight, raises this practicality: “People who are our clients don’t exactly want the intel we’re providing them to be announced to the world.”
All valid points, social media disciples say.
Yet they warn that Washington’s lobbying industry isn’t necessarily skirting social media out of strategy so much as because of complacency. Resisting rapidly changing communication patterns, one social media lawyer says, means lobbyists will only hurt themselves by failing to be part of an often unwieldy, public but essential conversation on politics.
“Social media is where the conversation about politics is taking place, and it’s now too big to be ignored,” said Glen Gilmore, who teaches a social-media law course at Rutgers University, runs a social-media marketing firm and enjoys more than 103,500 Twitter followers. “It may be difficult for an industry that is used to doing business behind closed doors. I would think, though, that lobbying firms would want to have contacts with all people possible wherever they are to serve their clients best.”
For Shana Glickfield, a partner at D.C.-based public affairs firm Beekeeper Group, large lobbying firms have little time to waste when it comes to their remedial social media training.
When Glickfield looks at the demographics of Capitol Hill staffers, she sees people in their 20s and 30s, most of whom communicate via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare and various other social media offerings as people 20 years ago would have a land-line telephone or written memorandum.
The key to reaching them — and everyone else in government — is an all-of-the-above approach to lobbying, she said.
“It’s definitely not an either-or,” Glickfield explained. “You can have the academic write the 100-page think piece and take it to Capitol Hill. That’s fine. But now turn it into 10 tweets, a YouTube video, Facebook ads and create a community around it. You have to go where people are spending their time.”
Plenty of prominent players in the political sphere intimately understand this.
President Barack Obama, who boasts 10 million-plus Twitter followers, finds himself in a statistical hug between starlets Katy Perry and Kim Kardashian. Nearly twice as many people have “liked” Sarah Palin’s Facebook page than that of actor Charlie Sheen.
Consider, too, that campaign consultants, grass-roots advocacy firms and many lobbying clients themselves have employed social media as a core function of their strategies for outreach, communication and self-promotion. A recent Associated Press tally indicates that more than 83 percent of members of Congress sport Facebook accounts, while more than 81 percent have Twitter feeds.
Lobbyists in particular should take note.
“Our work here is increasingly being conducted in the digital space,” said Seamus Kraft, director of digital strategy for the Republican-led House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “Everything we do is geared toward making government more efficient and effective for taxpayers, and that is the point of us using social media. And it’s harder to find an office that doesn’t use at least one platform reasonably well and frequently.”
AJ Bhadelia, online communications director for Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), said social media allows congressional offices to better understand what constituents of all sorts want.
“True, there isn’t any replacement for face-to-face contact. It’s the essence of human interaction,” Bhadelia says. “But with social media, you have statistics. You have instantaneous feedback. You can easily track what people are asking of you. You can’t necessarily do that with a town hall, a phone call or a visit to the office.”
Among top lobbying firms, Patton Boggs has the second-most Twitter followers — a comparatively modest 2,885 as of Monday — behind only Ernst & Young, which is primarily an accounting and consultancy business. The @pattonboggs handle has published a variety of information, ranging from press releases to news links of note to clients. It also routinely thanks people for retweeting its postings.
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld (@akin_gump) is the only other lobbying firm with Twitter followers in four figures and leads all others in the number of tweets.
American League of Lobbyists President Howard Marlowe expects lobbying firms will begin institutionally embracing social media en masse during the next year or two.
That starts with simply creating social media accounts if lobby companies don’t have them, then designating or hiring people to coordinate and maintain them. Lobbyists, he says, can either be stuck in the past and pay the price of being viewed as backward, or become literate with the present day’s communication technology and prepare for even more changes.
One prominent lobbyist at a major firm told POLITICO that his company is in the midst of pointed and high-level deliberations on how exactly to use social media. Some members of the firm remain unconvinced that it’ll be particularly useful to them or their clients; not fostering a social media presence could lead to image problems and hinder employees’ abilities to connect with some government workers, others argue.
Lobbyists Maloney, Gold and Kaufman, for their part, say their respective firms are moving toward improving their social-media connections.
“If you’re trying to communicate to someone in an advisory, you can’t limit yourself. We get that,” Kaufman said.
Added Maloney: “We’re coming to an age where you have to embrace some of the new technologies out there, if only for visibility purposes. But the benefits can go beyond that.”