By Nicole Gaudiano
WASHINGTON -- When Sen. Chris Coons spoke Wednesday at a Senate hearing about repealing a federal ban on same-sex marriage, he offered a menu of cyber options to hear his message.
The Delaware Democrat's staff posted links to a video of the speech on his blog, YouTube channel, Twitter account and Facebook, where any of his 10,000-plus "fans" could weigh in. He also asked a question during the hearing suggested by a Twitter follower.
Such multifaceted approaches to communications are becoming the norm for many members of Congress. Social media, telephone town hall meetings, e-newsletters and other tools let them connect with constituents and supporters -- and self-promote -- in more ways than ever.
"People today communicate with each other in lots of different ways," said Coons. "It's important for people who are interested to have an opportunity to be updated about what I'm doing, day in and day out ... and to be able to give me regular input and ask questions and get answers."
President Barack Obama fielded questions and personally posted the first presidential tweet July 6 in the White House's first Twitter Town Hall. Lawmakers, including Delaware politicians, are using such sites to explain their votes, highlight reports and news stories and tout their media appearances. Some House members are even joining new-media caucuses that offer training and share best practices.
Members of the Delaware delegation say social media, other online platforms and telephone town halls help them present their positions and get input.
Democratic Rep. John Carney said the positive feedback he received via social media sites was important to him when he broke with the Obama administration on Libya policy. He opposed continuing U.S. military operations there in votes last month.
"They react to what you post, to what you tweet," he said of constituents. "It's just helpful to get confirmation that you're on the right track on a particular issue. And people challenge you. That's important, too."
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said offering new ways to communicate online allows people to feel "a bit more in touch," share their concerns with his office in different ways and hold him accountable.
"My hope is that we're able to serve them better than we otherwise could," he said.
Social media sites may help politicians engage political junkies and young constituents, but they also have a self-promotional purpose, helping politicians look "cool and connected and up to the minute," said Ralph Begleiter, director of the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication.
It's doubtful that most members of Congress are spending a great deal of time reading their Twitter or Facebook pages -- or that they're posting comments themselves, he said.
Carper's and Carney's tweets and posts are in the first person, but they're typically posted by a staffer based on input from the lawmaker.
Some lawmakers have turned social media into a competition.
House Republicans held a six-week contest in the spring to see who could get the most new Facebook friends, Twitter followers and YouTube subscribers. Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana took first prize: an iPhone.
Senate Republicans and Democrats competed for viewers in their "YouTube Townhall" initiative, asking Facebook followers which questions they would like answered.
Members are also thinking about ways to include social media in their 2012 election campaigns. Carper suggested his campaign's use of social media will look much different next year than it did in 2006, particularly to attract young voters.
"It's a new world," Carper said. "For folks that continue to live in the old world, they may be disappointed with the results of their elections."
Lawmakers still learning social media dos and don'ts can benefit from some recent object lessons.
Former Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner resigned after he accidentally posted a suggestive photo of himself on Twitter, then lied about it.
More recently, a district staffer for Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., resigned after tweeting violent messages, including one about shooting up a post office because of slow service, the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call reported.
Of the Delaware delegation, Coons' Facebook and Twitter sites are getting the most traffic, boosted in part by his high-profile Senate campaign against Christine O'Donnell. His are unofficial sites, which allow campaign-related content. But they are currently being used to promote policy and seek feedback.
More than 100 Facebook fans "liked" his speech advocating a repeal of the federal ban on gay marriage. His fans also weighed in when Coons asked them to rank their priorities for Congress last month.
"Bring our combat troops home," wrote one fan. "Get rid of fossil fuels entirely."
Another wrote, "1) Jobs. 2) Jobs. 3) Jobs. Any questions?"
On Carney's Facebook page, fans have commented on budget negotiations and the tough economy. Such messages help "personalize" constituents' concerns, which is why he tries to pay close attention to his Facebook account, reading it at home or in the office, he said.
"That focus from real people, struggling with maybe their job, with business, with paying the bills, tells me what our major focus should be down here in Washington," Carney said.