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Is Social Media Killing the Lobbyist? | Commentary

By Christian Theuer By traditional measures, lobbying is on the decline in American politics. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, spending on lobbying has hit a five-year low and the number of registered lobbyists is at its lowest point since 1998, so it seems the art of influence is waning, right? Not quite. As long as there are vested interests in American politics, there will always be organized efforts to shift the political landscape. So where have all the influence-peddlers headed?  

Surprisingly, 46 percent of those who dropped out of lobbying in 2012 were still employed by the same company. These lobbyists aren’t necessarily going away, rather the art of lobbying is changing. Congressional regulations on lobbying exempt from disclosure spending on grass-roots mobilization, television and social media campaigns. This gives lobbyists a plethora of ways to thrive in an industry that is only dying on paper.
Social media has chipped away at the barriers separating constituents from the hallways of the Rayburn and Hart congressional office buildings, and diminished the time it takes dedicated activists to voice their concerns directly to their legislators. As a result, lobbying is transforming to accommodate the ways in which technology has reshaped the American political environment. The time-intensive processes of organizing letter campaigns or making the trip to Washington, D.C., are becoming obsolete as social media enables individuals to start a movement wherever they find a Wi-Fi connection.  

Congressional offices understand the importance of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram when it comes to their constituents. According to the Congressional Management Foundation, the overwhelming majority of congressional staffers find these tools at least “somewhat important” to communicating their offices’ views and positions. What’s more, CQ Roll Call recently reported that congressional staffers believe commenting on social media is surpassing even email as an advocacy tool. On the campaign trail, Rand Paul and Hillary Rodham Clinton both actively appear on Snapchat, while Jeb Bush’s use of the live-streaming app Meerkat demonstrates that politicians are recognizing the need to participate on newer social media platforms. Our interconnectedness has indirectly rendered obsolete the old-guard standards by which influence is assessed and earned.  

These days, equating an image of popular television characters “The Simpsons” bathing in piles of cash with the Clinton fundraising machine might just be what is needed to rally a base of support. Active, responsive, and consistent digital media campaigns can cultivate loyal followings and serve as a powerful tool to keep individuals informed and inspire them to rally behind various issues. The specific content, messaging, and tone of these efforts depends on a number of variable factors, but digital media initiatives always require consistent engagement with key audiences in tailored ways that matter to their following. Without proper customization, lobbyists will find that social media can also fail at shifting the tides.  

Social media not only requires traditional lobbyists to evolve, but also opens the door to existing digital experts and social media gurus to further leverage their expertise in the arena of influence. In the world of public policy, social media can either create impact, or prove a lost cause. Lobbying expertise still matters, it’s only the ways we leverage it that have changed.  

Christian Theuer is an associate in the Washington D.C. office of Alpaytac. 

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