WASHINGTON Democrat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp spent an hour fielding energy-related questions from North Dakotans at a town hall meeting last Thursday. As a sign of changing times, the town hall interactions all took place on the social media website Facebook.
North Dakota's congressional delegation has embraced multiple forms of communication in an effort to stay connected with constituents.
"There's so many avenues now for people to contact their member," Heitkamp said. "People expect that you are going to be accessible on all of them."
Heitkamp, along with Sen. John Hoeven and Congressman Kevin Cramer, both R-N.D., still take letters and phone calls, but they turn to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube when they want to get a conversation started quickly.
Hoeven has an inclusive strategy when it comes to communication.
"I do them all because I think they all work," he said. "I think you have to use all of them because they reach different people. People like to get their news and information and give input in different ways."
Communication can be more challenging when it involves staying on top of information coming from many directions at once. But North Dakota's delegation seems to like it that way.
Heitkamp said she is a fan of social media as a way to reach a lot of people instantly and for free. The biggest challenge with the Facebook town hall last week was keeping up with the questions as they came in, Heitkamp said. She kept multiple conversations going with the help of two typists
Heitkamp previously has held Twitter town halls. She said they can be useful when there's an urgent issue before Congress, and she needs feedback quickly.
Cramer said he once tried a Facebook town hall that allowed people to submit questions during a specific time frame. He answered with a video posted on his Facebook page. Cramer said the input wasn't great as some other communication methods, although he noted the true participation is difficult to gauge because there was no way to count video views.
"My experience, in terms of reaching the maximum number of people and then listening to the maximum number of people, really has been in radio town halls," Cramer said.
Cramer hosts an hour-long radio town hall on Wednesday mornings on stations in Bismarck, Fargo, Dickinson, Minot and Tioga. He also is a guest Thursday mornings on stations in Grand Forks and Harvey. The response has been strong to a radio format that Cramer calls "effective and efficient."
"In terms of reaching the most people, that really has been hugely successful for me," he said.
In addition, he regularly meets with visiting groups from North Dakota in Washington and gives every letter a response, which he personally signs. His database from last year shows 47,000 inquiries from North Dakotans.
"North Dakotans are very engaged and they are also, by the way, very well informed," he said. "That makes them very useful to a guy like me who needs information to do my job well."
Nothing is as personal as a face-to-face town hall, though, and Cramer has conducted several "Coffee with Cramer" events around the state.
"I don't think there will ever be a good substitute for that," he said. "It's amazing how far some people will drive to be at an event."
Cramer said attendance has averaged from the mid-teens to about 75.
Having crisscrossed the state regularly as governor, Hoeven follows the same pattern as a senator.
"I am used to going around the state and having open meetings and roundtables on whatever issues we are working on so we get things done that need to get done, but also give people a chance to come in and give their views," he said. "When I am back, I always go around the state as much as possible. There's nothing better than just being out there with people and talking to people. ... There's no substitute for the personal contact."
Heitkamp has held numerous public hearings in communities on topics generating local interest but doesn't get much request to hold general town hall meetings that require a time and travel commitment from people.
"I think that social media is more accessible for the average North Dakotan," she said.
Hoeven and Heitkamp also have made guest appearances on radio programs to both present information and to take calls.
It was the result of feedback received in a radio call-in show that Heitkamp established a "fix my mail" page on her website, where people can leave comments about the postal system to be delivered to the postmaster general.
"It's not waiting to see what people say. It's inviting input," Heitkamp said of the web page. The more than 100 personal stories of postal problems add weight to her lone voice in Washington, she said.
In connecting to constituents, the congressional delegation isn't abandoning the postal service or scrapping a voice call for text. They realize some constituents want those traditional avenues kept open. However, they see the direction things are going.
"I think we need to be more agile going into the future because how people react to methods of communication really is generational," Heitkamp said.
Any communication method, old or new, that keeps him in contact with constituents is a good thing, Cramer added.
"I just find being available and being accessible, it leads to better accountability," he said.