Politicians love to grab a headline and feed off a controversy and nothing encapsulates this better than the time-honored tradition of the political stunt. For better or for worse, there is nothing quite like a good stunt to make the world stop for a moment and turn your direction. That’s exactly what happened earlier this week when House Democrats organized a sit-in to protest the House recessing before allowing a vote on banning those on the no-fly list from buying guns.
Watching the sit-in brought back some memories of the last time Members of Congress decided to stay on the floor in protest. It was August 2008 during yet another contentious election year. Nancy Pelosi was Speaker, gas prices were at historical highs, and House Republicans were determined to get a vote on an “all of the above” energy policy. That vote never happened. Instead, Speaker Pelosi gaveled the House, adjourned for the August recess, cut the cameras and turned off the lights in the Chamber.
Unlike the Democrats, who dissolved their sit-in a few hours into the recess this week, the Republicans stayed on the floor for weeks, shuffling back and forth from the darkened well of the House floor to Statuary Hall to talk the media in a constant procession of press conferences and impromptu interviews.
As a young press secretary for a relatively new Member at the time, I recall the Republican protest as an exciting time and a fantastic opportunity to drum up attention in the media back in the district. We quickly drew up press statements, lined up press conferences and distributed talking points. I even brought media from the district down to D.C. to do a walk-along with my boss during the protest—all very traditional tactics employed with time-honored tools. What we didn’t have at the time was the ubiquitous power of social media. That is what made this week’s sit-in so historic and it should remind us how technology continues to break down barriers to information and communication.
Back in 2008, when the cameras were turned off there wasn’t much recourse for press staff than to try to get members of the media into the gallery to hear what Members had to say. Staff members aren’t allowed to bring their phones or blackberries onto the Floor (with certain specific exceptions) and unless you work for leadership you don’t have unfettered access to much real estate beyond the cloakroom. As a result, we were severely limited in how much we could do to get our message out. If the media didn’t want to cover our protest, there wasn’t much we could do about it.
That’s why it was so amazing this week to see Members live stream their protest right from their phones over Periscope and Facebook live. Equally amazing was social media’s response, with Periscope setting up its own channel to help people tune into the protest with Facebook following suit. For the first time in history, C-SPAN actually covered the sit-in by showing the unfiltered Facebook livestream. Not to be outdone by social streaming, one congressman actually called into CNN over Facetime on his iPhone to conduct an interview (before a staffer from the Sergeant of Arms shut it down).
Regardless of your political affiliation or position on the issue at hand, it is hard to deny that the American people benefited from seeing their House of Representatives from a new perspective. Social media allowed us to break down the artificial wall put up by the Chamber’s fixed camera positions to see how the House looks from the authentic angle of a hand-held camera.
It also proves the immediate power of live streaming. Everyone now is a broadcaster and as professional communicators we no longer have an excuse if we fail to secure a TV camera at an event. If the issue is compelling and the content is timely, your broadcast might just end up on CNN. The House sit-in upped the ante on political theater. In this crazy political season we can only speculate who will raise it even higher.