Representation Gone Viral: Communication Capacity in Congress

September 28, 2023   Annelise Russell

  • Congressional Reform
  • Blog

Unlike most of my academic colleagues, I came to Congress with the radical notion that communication was cool, and I got a somewhat chilly reception. My passion for politics stemmed from my time as a new reporter in D.C., and the only things I really knew about Congress were what a more seasoned press person told me.  But the nuance of Congress, the way information moved and the strategic political dance were what propelled me to academia.

As a scholar, I’ve stuck with the notion that digital communication matters and not just for campaigns. After the 2016 election, selling folks on the notion that Twitter mattered wasn’t so hard anymore. I wrote a book, Leading is Tweeting, about everything you could learn about the Senate if you just spent time on Twitter.  Senators with eye on a presidential run communicate A LOT differently, electoral safety matters, and presidents make good digital punching bags. But after reading every Chuck Grassley tweet about Iowa’s 99 counties, you start to consider bigger picture and how digital communications operate behind the scenes in Congress.

So I began the first project to capture the oral history of digital communication in Congress. I don’t recommend starting a project three weeks before a global pandemic, but if you must, I highly recommend interviewing the only population who knows how to navigate a Zoom link.  After three years and 200 interviews, what emerged was an oral history of communication and digital technology in Congress. The project captures the pains of the approvals process, detailing how communications professionals do their job, and the persistent, 24-hour demand for digital communication.

Two key takeaways from those conversations:

1) digital is a bipartisan pain point and

2) communication isn’t cheap.

There is a lot about Congress that looks different on either side of the aisle, but the highs/lows of communication are felt across the political spectrum.  Getting your content stalled in a never-ending approvals chain for no apparent reason, getting asked to “come up with a response” in the middle of a friend’s wedding, or trying to juggle 50 tasks with a hope and a prayer. Hallway gaffs are everywhere, and few people enjoy the opportunity to clarify what your boss said.  And good luck making sure your video renders before hours of work are gone.  Digital communication has any number of thankless tasks, and that is both a red and blue problem. Nobody is getting enough sleep. Everyone shared lows, and creating more highs amid the lows requires a collaborative effort to acknowledge what works and what doesn’t.

Related to the pain points of digital is the notion that Twitter is free, therefore digital is cheap. The notion that you can be an effective creative director with an iPhone and a willing intern is deeply problematic. We no longer convince people that communication matters, but there remains uncertainty in just how much that should cost and the expectations for that investment. Most offices don’t have the budget, resources, or time to produce the digital content we’ve come to expect. The deep decline of local news is one reason offices have to produce more and work harder to package their message, and that burden isn’t costless. There’s more information about Congress than ever before, and that filtering isn’t costless. We often talk about modernization and congressional capacity in terms of lawmaking, but communication capacity is just as important for the folks in charge of the information flow.

On August 3, 2023, I was invited to host a discussion at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress. Check out the full discussion with Stephen Dwyer, current Senior Director for Innovation at the U.S. House of Representatives; Matt Lira, former Special Assistant at the White House Office of American Innovation; and Samantha Carter, Director of Communications and Marketing for the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer below. This session examined the trajectory of digital communication in Congress.