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Members Warming to Google Hangouts

It’s common to see members of Congress tweeting or posting on Facebook. Not as many lawmakers have taken to Google Plus and Google Hangouts, although members on both sides of the Dome seem to be warming to the medium.

Staff at Google are helping elected officials learn to use the tools it has to offer. Specifically, the Politics and Causes team at Google Plus has introduced Hangouts — free online video chats — to some members of Congress by talking them through the platform’s features and offering best practices.

“More and more elected officials are turning to Google+ to get beyond the beltway and talk to their constituents back home,” Ramya Raghavan, head of the Politics and Causes team, said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “Hangouts are an easy and effective way to communicate on important issues face-to-face.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, for instance, isn’t always able to accept invitations from schools to come visit in person, but he can pay a virtual visit to classrooms via Google Hangouts.

Since April 11, the Virginia Republican has hosted five Hangouts with students from schools in his district. The technology needed to participate in a Hangout is minimal: a computer with a camera and speakers. The chats are typically held from the convenience of Cantor’s office on Capitol Hill and last for about 30 minutes. The videos of the five Hangouts — the most recent of which was Oct. 22 — are not available online for the public to see, but Megan Whittemore, Cantor’s press secretary, said feedback from students and teachers has been positive.

A typical Hangout begins with an update from the majority leader on what’s going on in Washington. He then encourages the students to ask him questions, said Whittemore, who later added that Cantor wants the Hangouts to be interactive for students.

The majority leader uses Hangouts in an attempt to make government more open and transparent, Whittemore said. “This has always been a priority for the leader,” she said.

“Through Google Hangouts we are able to connect directly with students across Virginia who are interested in the political process,” Cantor said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “Engaging students and constituents online is a great way to provide a real time update about what’s going in Washington, answer questions and stay connected.”

Cantor is scheduled to host another Hangout with students on Thursday.

In addition to Cantor, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy regularly hosts Google Hangouts as a way to connect with constituents and answer their questions.

The Connecticut Democrat hosted his first Hangout on April 22. In the Hangout video, he said that the only previous experience he had with the social-media platform came when he and some of his friends from college used it to hold a fantasy baseball draft.

Murphy hosts a Google Hangout every two weeks when he is in D.C. The format varies — sometimes Murphy has guests join him in person or virtually — but he often takes questions submitted by people via Facebook and Twitter. Each Hangout lasts between 30 minutes and an hour and can be watched live online (the live Hangouts are called Hangouts On Air). One of the longest sessions to date focused on gun-related legislation, and another centered on U.S. military intervention in Syria.

“Google Hangouts are a great way to connect with even more people in Connecticut, particularly when [Sen. Murphy is] in Washington for votes,” Ben Marter, Murphy’s communications director, said via email. “Sen. Murphy holds these a couple times a month, and we seem to get a bigger crowd each time.”

A video archive of Murphy’s past Hangouts can be found on his Google Plus and YouTube pages.

Other members of Congress have dabbled in the art of the Google Hangout. Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin hosted her first Hangout on Sept. 26 to discuss a bill she sponsored called the Next Generation Research Act (S 1552). During the Hangout, Baldwin conversed with guests, including a medical school dean and a cancer survivor, who shared why they believed medical research is an important investment.

Baldwin will host more Google Hangouts in the future, according to John Kraus, her communications director.

“It’s an easy platform to use once you use it for the first time and get used to it,” Kraus said. “It’s also easy to tune in and watch because of the versatility of the platform.”

Some other members of Congress have participated in issue-specific Hangouts. Republican Reps. Diane Black of Tennessee; Virginia Foxx of North Carolina; Cory Gardner of Colorado; Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania; and Susan W. Brooks, Larry Bucshon, Todd Rokita and Jackie Walorski of Indiana hosted a series of three Google Hangouts on the topic of student loan interest rates.

Members of the executive branch have also dabbled in Google Hangouts. President Barack Obama held what he called a “fireside Hangout” on Feb. 14 — a nod to the fireside chats President Franklin D. Roosevelt broadcast over the radio in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Obama fielded questions about his State of the Union address from the founder of an online magazine focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, and Latino issues and a conservative video blogger, among others.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. participated in a January fireside Hangout on gun violence. And, more recently, Secretary of State John Kerry participated in a September Hangout during which journalists and others asked him questions about possible U.S. responses to the civil war in Syria.

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