woman with cellphone

Legislative communicators say it’s important to continually seek ideas from constituents as a way to keep lawmakers informed and to draw in the public.

Social Media: Great for Engaging Constituents, but Handle With Care

By Kelley Griffin | Nov. 15, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

josie ellison washington
Ellison
beth livingston ohio
Livingston

Social media can be a quick and powerful way to engage with many constituents, but two legislative communications staff warn of pitfalls.

Beth Livingston, deputy communications director for the Ohio Senate, says state lawmakers and staff learned a hard lesson a few years ago when a senator deleted a Facebook comment and blocked the commenter. The commenter sued.

“It taught us never do that, never silence a person for sharing their opinion,” Livingston told an NCSL Base Camp session. “That is something we strongly advise: never block, never ban.” 

But she doesn’t want lawmakers to be scared off.
“Some people are warriors who won’t say nice things, but you have to open yourself up to that if you want feedback,” she says. 

A key goal is to humanize legislators and the issues their caucuses are talking about so constituents can relate and be more likely to engage.

Josie Ellison, communications specialist with the Washington State House Democratic Caucus, agrees that you have to take the (mostly) good with the (sometimes) bad. 

“It’s not the end of the world, it’s going to be OK,” Ellison says. “Buckle up, ride out the storm.”

Both staffers say sometimes it might make sense to post a clarifying response, or invite the angry commenter to follow up directly with the legislator, though they say people rarely do that. And often, it’s better to move on—or engage more heavily with the other commenters, Livingston says. Fortunately, major kerfuffles are the exception.

Livingston and Ellison say a key goal is to humanize legislators and the issues their caucuses are talking about so constituents can relate and be more likely to engage. They each make a point to learn about individual members so they can bring that fuller picture to constituents.

“The more you know about their (members’) personal story and what drives them to be here, the more you can bring those elements in” when posting, Ellison says.

However, in Washington, ethics rules put limits on sharing personal aspects of lawmakers’ lives, preventing them, for example, from posting directly to TikTok. So they have to work around those limits.

In Ohio, the communications staff has developed a contact card with a QR code that leads to important resources such as information on bills or voter registration. Livingston says they use a service called Linktree, which makes it easy to link to all social media platforms and other resources.

Livingston says they hold virtual town halls, generate newsletter updates and send letters acknowledging milestones such as graduations and new home purchases. They also send out single-question surveys, asking, for example, “Do you like or dislike daylight saving time?” 

Both say it’s important to continually seek ideas from constituents as a way to keep legislators informed and to draw in the public.

They say their legislatures have been using virtual meetings solidly and that the next session will be the first to be held fully in person since the pandemic began. Ellison says they got good at it, but there’s always room to improve. And they need to keep up with online meetings, too, because that format is valuable to constituents.

“The really beneficial part is you are reaching a younger demographic, and also it lives on a page so someone who can’t view live can find it later,” Ellison says. 

Kelley Griffin writes and edits for NCSL.

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