By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
Both Republicans and Democrats in the Indiana Statehouse are ramping up their use of social media to reach constituents and market their political party’s brand.
Earlier this year, the Indiana House Republicans launched an account on Pinterest, a fast-growing social media site that until recently had been best known as a popular “pinboard” for recipes, crafts and home décor.
This fall, Senate Democrats will be on Pinterest as well, using the platform as their colleagues in the other chamber do: posting a library of user-friendly resources for Indiana residents and pinning favorite photos of themselves engaged in daily activities in and out of the Statehouse.
Political scientist Brandon Waite, a Ball State University expert in emerging media, thinks it a smart move. Pinterest is one of the fastest growing social media platforms and two-thirds of its 23 million users are women — a critical demographic in the November election.
“If you want to communicate with people, you go where they are,” Waite said.
Not long ago, few people in the Statehouse could easily connect to free social media sites like Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. The state’s information technology office routinely blocked access through the state’s network, worried that state workers would be whiling away their time, using it for personal reasons.
Now, it’s normal to see legislators and their staffs using their laptops, iPads, and smartphones to routinely visit those sites to communicate with constituents and voters.
“We didn’t abandon the old models of communication,” said Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma, who has his own Facebook page. “We’ve simply expanded them and done it at no expense to taxpayers.”
Senate Democrats were the first to launch a blog, back in 2009. Their “Briefing Room” blog still provides in-depth information on topics of the day, with links to video and audio of their caucus members talking about a range of issues. During the 2010 budget session, and again during the 2011 session, the Senate Democrats and their media staff wrote a series of posts breaking down the state budget and explaining the budget process.
Among the legislative caucuses, Senate Democrats took the early lead in social media, in part out of necessity. They make up the smallest caucus with the least collective clout, so often get overlooked by the traditional media. State Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, held the first Twitter “town hall” earlier this year.
“We’re looking for whatever avenues there are to reach our constituents,” said Peg McLeish, the caucus’s deputy chief of staff and senior press secretary.
Republicans have caught up fast. Waite, the Ball State political scientist, says there’s a reason for that: They’re appealing to shifting demographics. Waite said the number of people using social networking sites has nearly doubled since 2008, and the population of social network users has gotten older, with more than half of them above the age of 35.
“It used to be just 20-year-olds who were using social media,” Waite said. “Now it’s their mothers and fathers who are there, too.”
Still, it may have taken their kids to initially show them how.
Bosma credits the young media staff who work for the House Republicans for helping some older legislators get past their technology phobia. Bosma said the staff — the “geek squad” as he calls them — have tutored members on how to post messages to Facebook and send out a Twitter tweet. “The young people on our staff have really made it seamless for them,” Bosma said.
Facebook — a site that was first created for college students to communicate — is now a place where legislators on both sides of the aisle can be found.
Sen. Tim Skinner, D-Terre Haute, and Rep. Heath Vannatter, R-Kokomo, are a world apart on many legislative issues, but they use Facebook in a similar way, mixing in the personal with the political. Skinner, for example, has a link to a story about a recent hearing on the Department of Child Services on his Facebook page; he also has an announcement about the birth of his newest grandchild.
Vannatter’s Facebook page has a photo of him at a baseball game — and a photo of him with vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan.
Vannatter, who posts to Facebook using his smartphone, said he ramped up his use of Facebook earlier this year during the contentious fight over the “right to work” legislation that triggered a boycott by House Democrat and led to days of drama.
“I kept getting text messages from people asking if we’d voted yet,” Vannatter said. He started posting updates on the unfolding situation on his Facebook page.
“I immediately started getting feedback,” he said, adding: “Of course, not all of it was good.”
Legislators who’ve taken to social media say it doesn’t replace the old ways of communicating with voters. Lanane, who held a Twitter “town hall” this summer from the Statehouse, said he was reminded of that by a tweet from critics: “They asked, ‘are you doing this because you didn’t want to face the people?'"
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.