Congress’ Early Adopters Circle Up on Google Plus

Posted October 18, 2011 at 3:45pm

Every day, the offices of Members of Congress are flooded with various forms of communications from constituents. There are the old-school phone calls and faxes. Add to that emails, Facebook wall posts and tweets.

Now, Members are being circled on Google Plus.

Although Google’s newest attempt at creating a social network is only a few months old — it was introduced in late June — it hit
25 million users in the middle of the summer. Currently, at least 14 Members of Congress are on Google Plus.

They are: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Reps. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), Jim Himes (D-Conn.), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Ron Paul (R-Texas), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), as well as Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.).

On Google Plus, a platform that attempts to combine the best of Twitter and Facebook, users can organize each other into “circles.” For instance, a Member might place constituents in one circle, members of the media in another and fellow lawmakers in a third, and then target posts to specific circles. Unlike Twitter, which is typically used for broadcasting to “followers,” and Facebook, which is generally used for engaging with “friends,” Google Plus allows users to combine both approaches to best interact with certain users.

“Google Plus aims to make sharing on the Web more like sharing in the real world,” a Google spokesman said. “You share different things with different people.”

Although some Members were quick to create Google Plus profiles, many are waiting for it to replicate successful characteristics of other social networks before fully engaging with the medium. Among those desired features is something along the lines of Twitter’s “verified account” designation, which allows Members of Congress and other notable users to prove that they are who they claim to be.

In an online statement in July, Google Plus’ product manager Christian Oestlien asked “non-user entities,” such as businesses and organizations, to wait until Google released new features specifically for users who are not private individuals.

“The business experience we are creating should far exceed the consumer profile in terms of its usefulness to businesses,” Oestlien said in the statement. “We have a great team of engineers actively building an amazing Google+ experience for businesses, and we will have something to show the world later this year.”

A Google spokesman, who would not give his name per company policy, was unable to provide a timeline for the introduction of new features.

“We are, however, anticipating rolling out brand/profile pages and we expect elected officials and candidates to fully utilize those when they launch in the near future,” he said. 

Jesper Frant, Udall’s deputy press secretary for social media, sees a big future for Google Plus but is waiting until the platform can be more effectively used by public individuals such as
Members of Congress.

“Because Google is such a big player already, and there are so many users already, I imagine it will grow really rapidly,” he said. “Google Plus isn’t just a new social network. … It’s a layer on top of all of their platforms.”

Udall, who has more than 10,000 followers on Twitter and more than 7,000 fans on Facebook, has been placed in circles by more than 30 Google Plus users.

“We’re still exploring it,” Frant said, but he is confident that number will grow. “People are there, and we want to communicate with them,” he said.

Although there is no content posted on Udall’s Google Plus profile, Frant said, the exploration of the new technology has been helpful. “I’m glad that we created the page,” he said. “It gives us a good way to gauge interest in the platform.”

Like Udall, McGovern’s Google Plus profile has no content posted to it yet in anticipation of Google’s release of pages for public individuals. “We’re holding off until we see what that looks like,” said McGovern’s director of new media, Scott Zoback.

“The plan is still to add Google Plus to our repertoire,” Zoback said. “I do think it’s a very useful tool. We’re just waiting for that next functionality”

Zoback said Congressional offices sometimes struggle when deciding whether to direct content on Facebook and Twitter toward a local or national audience.

“You don’t want people to grow tired of posting things that aren’t relevant to them,” he said. Using the circles feature on Google Plus, Zoback hopes to avoid this problem.

And this audience won’t necessarily be seeing repurposed Facebook and Twitter content.

“You can go a little longer with your posts, so I think there might be some more long-form stuff,” he said.

Zoback also wants to explore the platform’s “hangout” feature, which allows multiple users to communicate with each other by video chat.

McGovern has more than 1,000 fans on Facebook, more than 2,500 followers on Twitter and just more than 90 Google Plus users who have put him in their circles.

Other offices are diving right in. Warner, Hatch and Schakowsky maintain active Google Plus profiles.

Kevin Hall, communications director for Warner, said the Senator was the impetus for exploring the new medium. “Sen. Warner is very aggressive on the technology front, and he wants us to use every possible platform to reach folks in different ways,” he said.

Hall acknowledged that the Google Plus profile is not updated as often as Warner’s Twitter and Facebook pages, where the Senator has more than 21,000 followers and 15,000 fans, respectively. “It’s not top of mind,” he said.

Nonetheless, more than 150 Google Plus users have placed Warner in their circles, and the profile has posted public material since July. “You’re trying to reach as many eyeballs as you can,” Hall said.

Hatch Press Secretary Matthew Harakal said the Senator’s presence on Google Plus is a continuation of his online communications strategy. “We’re always looking for new ways to reach out and communicate on whatever medium people are using,” Harakal said. Almost 400 people have placed Hatch in their circles on Google Plus, while the Senator has more than 9,000 fans on Facebook and more than 23,000 followers on Twitter.

Harakal noted that the office’s approach to the platform will probably change along with the platform itself and the way constituents use it. “With any of these emerging technologies, there’s a bit of a learning curve,” he said, explaining that the office is using Hatch’s profile to gauge what content and engagement constituents on Google Plus find valuable.

Patrick Hynes, president of online communications agency Hynes Communications, is optimistic about the features of Google Plus that distinguish it from other social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, specifically circles. “They have to be concerned about what’s going on with people that they represent,” he said, explaining that circles can allow Members of Congress to zero in on what is happening with their constituents. He also noted the benefits of a lack of character limit. 

“It gives politicians and public officials the ability to explain their point of view on key issues, taking the time to formulate their opinion, without condensing it down to 140 characters,” he said.

Hynes urges offices to start actively using Google Plus. “I don’t think there’s any downside to getting involved in a communication platform where your constituents are,” he said, even if Google has yet to release features specifically designed for groups and people like politicians.