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More Members Are Using Social Media To Interact With Their Constituents

As the fiscal cliff debate consumed Capitol Hill earlier this week, Bethany Bowra, whose Twitter profile describes her as a South Floridian “Boehner Groupie,” began tweeting at Republican Rep. Justin Amash to ask about his alternative to the speaker’s fiscal cliff deal.

“@repjustinamash, What was your alternative to Plan B?” tweeted Bowra, whose handle is @BethanyBowra. She received a response within minutes: “Tax cuts for people making $250K or less,” Amash tweeted.

The Michigan Republican is just one of a growing number of members who engage in conversations with constituents and the general public via social networking sites. And as more and more Americans begin to reach out to their members of Congress through nontraditional means such as Facebook and Twitter, software developers are creating tools to help members new and old archive those social media conversations for future reference.

Fireside21, an approved vendor that helps create websites for members of Congress, expanded its constituent relationship management software this year to add social media functionality. Its archival functions previously focused on more traditional communications, such as letters, email, phone conversations and faxes.

Fireside21 CEO Ken Ward said that as more members joined Twitter and Facebook, his company decided to add these mediums to its CRM software to “create a better picture and provide better constituent support.”

And now, as new members arrive in Washington and begin to build their online public personas, for the first time they are free to choose whichever approved vendor they please to set up constituent websites rather than being tied to the vendor their predecessors used. In addition to Fireside21, other popular approved Web service vendors include Lockheed Martin, InterAmerica and iConstituent.

Ward said the new social media integration in CRM software could drive more members to use social media as an engagement tool rather than simply a medium to push out information, by making it easier to keep track of and log social media activity.

“We are streamlining social media into our CRM to make it easier to use and easier to train staff on,” Ward said. “We created this behind-the-scenes [software] to help manage it all, to keep track of it all and to be more organized.”

Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that advises members on constituent engagement, said social media is becoming more and more of a priority for member outreach. Fitch said setting up Twitter and Facebook accounts should be one of the first tasks members complete when they arrive in D.C.

He added that the social media integration that vendors such as Fireside21 offer are beneficial to members, who want to actively engage their constituents in as many ways as possible, and to the public, who will gain more access to their representatives.

“Anything that allows members to have a comprehensive sort of mosaic of public interest and public reaction to their work is helpful to legislators,” Fitch said. “One of the myths out there is that members don’t care what the public thinks. Members deeply care about what the public thinks, so any way that info can be easily displayed to members will enhance their ability to engage with their constituents.”

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