Congressional Creativity

town hall meeting creativity

Social media tools are just that: tools. What’s needed is creativity in how you use them to accomplish your organization’s goals. “Off-label” uses can be among the best uses, because they involve creative thinking to solve a business problem.

Here’s an “old-media” illustration of the concept from one of my previous jobs, when I worked for a member of Congress. Members, as they’re known, typically hold town hall meetings in the communities they serve. (For the humorously senseless, that previous link is a parody, not a definition.) Depending on the size of their congressional district, they may get to each community once or twice a year.

Traditionally, members have used the franking privilege (which lets them send mail using their signature as the postage stamp) to send postcards or letters to each household in the community. These notices must be approved by a bipartisan group called the Franking Commission to ensure that they aren’t political or campaign-oriented, but are related to the member’s official duties.

Some members also used commision-approved newspaper ads to announce their meetings.

One problem with town meetings is you typically get the same crowd each time you go to a community, especially if the meeting is during the day. Or rather, the same non-crowd. Often it’s just a handful of people, and they are either retired or political partisans. Not that there’s anything wrong with either category, but it doesn’t represent the broad cross-section of the population.

One day I heard that another member had received approval for a different approach. Instead of using mailers or newspaper ads, he got a script approved for radio ads to announce the meetings. Attendance in his district had been somewhat better.

That gave me an idea: what if instead of just advertising the meetings on the radio, we held them on the radio?

So was born the Radio Town Hall. We would purchase ads in the week before the meeting to announce that we would be having a live call-in town hall from the studio of KXYZ, and the station would donate the hour of airtime for the actual meeting as a public service.

This was quite successful; we typically had more callers during the hour than we had total people attending the in-person meetings. The callers also were more diverse and reflective of the community population. We knew that we were multiplying the number of people who were able to at least listen to the proceedings from home or work. And it was less expensive than sending a postcard to every address.

I’m not sure whether I was the father of the Radio Town Hall; someone else may have done that first. But I think I can claim paternity for another innovation: the networked, district-wide radio town hall.

One of the drawbacks that remained with the local radio town hall was we still could only be in each community twice a year. We wanted more frequent and regular interactions with constituents. So we approached nine stations from across the district and asked: “What if we did this every Friday for a half-hour?” We could give a brief update on the week’s proceedings in Congress, and then open up the phone lines for questions or comments. We hooked the stations together by a phone bridge to an 800 number.

The important point of this example is that it didn’t involve any technological breakthroughs. It was just a different way of using technology that hadn’t changed much since the break-up of AT&T and deregulation of phone services. The pieces were all there. It was just a matter of reorganizing how we used them.

The possibilities for such creative combinations in the Web 2.0 world are amazing. Blogs through WordPress.com or Blogger, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, photo-sharing sites like Flickr, microblogging tools like Twitter, Jaiku and Pownce, VOIP services like Skype and transcription services like Jott are just some of the examples. They’re all free. And they increasingly can be mixed and matched so you can use them together through APIs that let them interchange data.

I’ve been out of the government service arena for about seven years now, and obviously the internet has become increasingly important in political campaigns, from macaca to online fundraising. All the presidential candidates have Facebook and MySpace pages. Barack Obama has 144,799 supporters on Facebook, and has an application that put his most recent campaign video on your personal profile. Hillary Clinton has just over 42,000 Facebook supporters. Rudy Giuliani trails badly in Facebook, with only 2,700. John McCain has 10,300 and Mitt Romney seems to be the Republican leader, at 17,679 supporters plus this Students for Mitt application (not many users, though.)

I would be interested in hearing how or whether any of these web 2.0 tools are being used in official government capacities, i.e. for taxpayer-funded offices, instead of just campaigns. It seems all of the politicians use Facebook for their campaigns, and it’s interesting that the “friends” are called “supporters” instead (and the 5,000 limit Robert Scoble encountered obviously doesn’t apply.)

Does Facebook charge these campaigns for that kind of account? If not, maybe Scoble should run for something so he could add more friends!

So how are you applying and combining these tools in creative ways to accomplish your business goals? Here’s a compilation of my thoughts on Facebook business use.
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Author: Lee Aase

Married father of six and grandfather of seven, and the Chancellor of SMUG - Social Media University, Global. By day I'm the Director of the Mayo Clinic Social Media Network. Whatever I say here is my personal opinion, and doesn't reflect the positions of my employer.

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