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In The Digital World, Politicians Play A Dual Role

How tech lobbies pols while also selling their services.

In The Digital World, Politicians Play A Dual Role

A few years ago, I sat in on a congressional learning trip to the Valley. Eight Congressmen and their staffs gathered at Google's Mountain View campus for presentations about the tech giant's innovation and impact on the economy. Not only were the reps surprised by the breadth of product categories (from digital ads to electronic health-care records), but their role as listener changed with each new idea. In some of the presentations, they were treated as lawmakers: The focus was on the need for innovation instead of regulation. In other cases, they were customers: The goal was to show the politicians how to use Google's media tools to win their reelections—and how they'll lose if they don't.

What is a Valley company? A traditional tech company? A media firm? An ad platform? It's hard enough to make these distinctions as consumers and investors. It's even more complex in Washington, where regulators and politicians approach the Valley on multiple fronts with a mix of fascination, admiration, confusion, and fear.

That's why Facebook might have five different teams join a meeting on Capitol Hill: one lobbyist on freedom-of-speech issues, another on intellectual property; an ad-sales rep to sell banners to the campaign; an analyst to discuss data exhaust and performance metrics; a training team to help these old-school politicos start a dialogue with supporters on their Facebook page. Oh, and Facebook wants to host and deliver the questions for a presidential debate, to boot.

The takeaway in Washington: If you're a politician dealing with Silicon Valley, you're not just a lawmaker; you're also a client.

Chris Talbot is the president of Talbot Digital, a Democratic consulting firm (and former leader of Google’s Elections and Issue Advocacy team in Washington)

[Image: Flickr user Michael Rosenstein]

A version of this article appeared in the November 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.