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Facebook means face time for politicians

As Minnesota legislators push ahead with an unprecedented town-hall meeting schedule to discuss the state’s fiscal challenges, the high-water mark for attendance is 400 citizens at a local meeting. That’s impressive, but the new opportunity for citizens and legislators is to engage in the conversation online. Minnesota’s legislators are trendy: They’re adopting Facebook at an unbelievable pace.

The first major political engagement via Facebook that I recognized was an early presidential primary event sponsored by ABC News and Facebook. In what seems like years ago now, on Jan. 8, 2008, ABC broadcast two debates, one with Democratic and the other with Republican candidates for president.

Yours truly logged into Facebook for the first time that night and watched while tens of thousands of citizens voted on sound bites and policy positions of the candidates debating on television in real time.  That was the moment I recognized the impact social networking would have on the 2008 election and the nature of engagement that politicians would need to understand to be successful.

After a successful first run on inauguration day with 18.8 million users, tonight during President Obama’s address to Congress CNN and Facebook will team up to offer a real-time discussion of the speech with a live video stream.  The discussion involves comments of your “friends” within Facebook, not everyone who is watching.  During the inaugural, it was all the rage. We’ll have to see if the level of hype continues tonight.

More than Minnesota 70 legislators have personal profiles or political profiles on Facebook — that, by itself, is not news. But the lawmakers’ level of engagement is significant. Most of the legislators are interacting with Facebook personally: they are posting comments and articles and returning the email personally.

When I have tested this on audiences over the past few weeks, they sigh and snicker. Their first reaction is that legislators may be wasting their time on Facebook or by social networking in general. They’re not.

As the volume of phone calls and emails increase, our part-time legislators find it more and more difficult to keep up.  Some legislators have resorted to using online “forms” for citizens to contact their offices rather than email addresses.  Seems impersonal, but the email volume for legislators is no doubt overwhelming.

Now back to Facebook, where the average legislator has just over 300 friends.  It seems that younger legislators have adopted Facebook more quickly, and House members are outpacing Senate members for participation.

One prominent Facebook user is House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who personally engages with her followers (1,372 of them as of today).  Her profile includes mobile uploads and pictures from last month’s inauguration in Washington. One GOPer thought of as a tech-geek is Rep. Pat Garafalo of Rosemount (262 friends).  Garafalo is more animated in his status updates than the speaker, last week suggesting he was upset with author Vince Flynn for killing off a key character in one of his thrillers.

For lobbyists and public affairs professionals, Facebook is proving to be a new channel to move citizens or gauge the popularity of an issue.  Last week, the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless began recruiting supporters to a Facebook group. Within five days it had more than 300 members and had raised $800.

The public is next: Minnesota legislators may truly recognize the power that the Obama campaign found online.

In our multi-channel world, the public and legislators now have a new tool. So whether it’s face time at town hall meetings or Facebook, opportunities for public engagement seem likely to increase. And that’s a good thing.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Robbie LaFleur on 02/25/2009 - 03:17 pm.

    There was an interesting story this week on the National Conference of State Legislatures’ blog, The Thicket. “Be Careful What You Post” highlights a private Facebook tiff between two Massachusetts legislators that ended up in a news article and an online apology.

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