Members of Congress not afraid to go off-topic on Twitter

Members of Congress are mostly using Twitter to communicate about legislation and official duties, but a significant portion of their tweets touch on more personal subjects such as family matters, health and sports, according to a new study by Edelman public relations firm.

The study mentions the well-publicized Twitter flameout of former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., who resigned after tweeting revealing intimate photographs last year. But the Edelman report said that lawmakers are continuing to share opinions and details about their lives--and even a bit of humor--and most of those non-work-related tweets appear to have positive effects.

“The data showed members of Congress were not afraid to use their official Twitter handles to tweet about fun or irreverent topics,” according to Edelman’s Capitol Tweets study released on March 21. “For example, a number of members tweeted in support of their preferred professional sports teams.”

For 112 days, Edelman and its research collaborators studied the 456 Twitter accounts of members of Congress, analyzing nearly 60,000 tweets in all.

The lawmakers tweeted about official matters between one-half to two-thirds of the time. But a large share of the remaining tweets covered a surprisingly wide range of topics.

For example, Rep. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has shared recipes for creamed spinach with her followers and in May 2011 she revealed on Twitter she was “tired of looking and feeling fat.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., also got personal on Twitter by announcing her second pregnancy in a tweet.

“We wanted to share the good news with the world. So I sent a tweet announcing my pregnancy,” Rodgers told Edelman, according to the report.

The response was “strong, immediate and overwhelmingly positive,” the congresswoman said, adding that the tweet also generated a lot of interest in discussion of work and life balancing issues.

Members devoted roughly one in every six tweets to human interest stories, such as remembering 9/11, saluting the troops and acknowledging birthdays and holidays, Edelman said in the report.

But there have been a few missteps, Edelman added. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., made a few people cringe with his unedited Twitter interactions with MTV reality star Snooki in 2010. And former Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., tweeted “Just landed in Baghdad” during a top-secret trip as part of the House Intelligence Committee in 2009.

Despite those gaffes, the study appears to conclude that the lawmakers’ personal and humanizing commentary provides a net benefit. “Ultimately, the best use of Twitter comes from developing an authentic voice,” Edelman said in the report.

Edelman said about 15 percent to 20 percent of total tweets were “personal and humanizing.” About 13 percent were “combative.” Smaller percentages were either “miscellaneous” or “fun and irreverent.”

The study also found that Republican members had greater reach on Twitter than Democrats, with Republicans tweeting 30 percent more on average. Senators were more successful on Twitter than House members.

Edelman also examined factors such as best days of the week for tweeting, key words, amplification and retweeting.

Edelman also found that about 49 percent of the lawmakers “tweet across the aisle” to communicate with lawmakers in the political opposition.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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