David Chavern launches U.S. Chamber of Commerce into world of social media
David Chavern, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, at Essie's Original Hot Dog Shop in Oakland. The fries at The O are one of the Pittsburgh native's favorites.
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One in an occasional series on local people who work in Washington, D.C.
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Chamber of Commerce isn't what it used to be, and that's largely because of the influence of a Pittsburgh native who infused the pro-business group with a new attitude toward communicating with its members, its stakeholders and the policymakers it seeks to influence.
A main focus of the organization used to be producing pro-business television programming and magazines. That's changing under the leadership of vice president David Chavern.
"We needed to be on television to get our message out, but we didn't need to make television," said Mr. Chavern, who reads five newspapers a day so he's always prepared to give a business-oriented reaction to the news of the day. Sometimes that happens in media interviews, but more often lately it's online in quick tweets or longer posts to the Chamber's blog at FreeEnterprise.com.
This month, as the Chamber celebrates its 100th anniversary, its presence online is increasing in ways that help the Chamber put its message out and -- more importantly -- get feedback in more ways than ever.
"David lit a fire in the social media world," said J.P. Fielder, a former spokesman for the Chamber. Mr. Chavern has ensured the organization has a Facebook page, a strong presence on Twitter, a blog and a YouTube channel. Mr. Chavern brought on a social media manager, Nick Schaper, to manage the new initiatives.
One point of pride was becoming the first advocacy organization to buy a promoted Twitter hashtag -- an identifier that, for $120,000, tops the list of trending topics for 24 hours. The chamber chose #getserious to draw attention to the need for job creation the day after President Barack Obama's State of the Union address.
Some of the promoted tweets linked to the Chamber's five-point jobs plan, which calls for a focus on energy infrastructure, trade and tourism, regulatory reform, innovation and government spending. Others urged followers to "tell @WhiteHouse to #GetSerious about #jobs. Business has a plan."
The advertising buy is highly coveted and normally booked months in advance because Twitter allows only one promoted trend each day, said Peter Greenberger, the social media company's director of sales for Washington, D.C., who first met Mr. Chavern in September during the Chamber executive's visit to Silicon Valley.
Four months later, when an advertiser backed out of its promoted-tweet arrangement at the last minute, Mr. Greenberger thought of Mr. Chavern.
"David jumped on it. You can only do that with somebody at the top [of an organization] who understands the medium and is willing to take a risk. Fortunately David was in a place to do that," Mr. Greenberger said. "He seems very savvy and very willing to learn, which is important because [technology] changes so quickly. We've seen legislative debates being impacted by [social media] and the Chamber recognized they need to play in that space."
He credited Mr. Chavern with the Chamber's commitment to embracing technology in ways many other Washington organizations haven't.
Mr. Chavern said the Chamber hasn't changed its message, only its medium. Micro-blogging in 140-character bursts is another way to reach a dynamic audience, he said in an interview at Teaism, a tea room across the street from the Chamber of Commerce's 90-year-old building that's an eight-minute walk from the White House.
"If we can get more people to think about us even for a nanosecond, that's success," he said.
In the end, it's not that different from what the Chamber has been doing for the past 100 years: "We're in the talking-to-people business. This is a way to do that, and every day we're doing it," Mr. Chavern said. "Having a website isn't a strategy. It's what you do with it."
For three years, social media engagement has been on a list of priorities that Mr. Chavern carries in his shirt pocket and has taped to his computer monitor. (The others are completing a $100 million capital campaign and incorporating legal and regulatory compliance at every level of the Chamber.)
Seeing the card was a pleasant surprise to Mr. Schaper.
"It's a very focused list, and No. 2 on it is social media. It's No. 1 for me, but I don't expect it to be for everyone at an organization this large," Mr. Schaper said. "He's not afraid of getting engaged in this space."
Mr. Chavern says he and Mr. Schaper are still evaluating the best ways to use the technology.
"You have to experiment and you have to be open to some things not working. You have to be open to experiment, evaluating, adjusting and experimenting again," Mr. Chavern said.
Mr. Chavern is a believer in re-evaluating and readjusting his own perspective, too. He says he does it frequently as he assimilates new information from business meetings, casual conversations and conventions. An example was an event at West Point where he said he learned the value of writing down core beliefs and then striving to act in accordance with them.
He also believes in serendipity -- something he describes as "a combination of luck and putting yourself in a position to take advantage of luck."
That was a factor in the Twitter buy, when the sudden opening on the Twitter schedule of promoted trends fortuitously coincided with the Chamber's campaign to get the public -- and ultimately the White House -- to pay attention to its pro-business job-creation plan.
There was also serendipity in a lucky choice of seat during a course Mr. Chavern took at Georgetown University while he was working on his master's in business administration. He got to know his seatmate, who happened to be a Chamber executive looking for someone to run the new Center for Capital Markets.
Luck put him in the right seat. Preparation put him in the position to have the qualifications for the job -- drive, a law degree, experience as a lawyer for Buchanan Ingersoll and manager at the U.S. Export-Import Bank.
Seven years later, Mr. Chavern is still with the Chamber -- now as vice president and chief operating officer. He lives with his wife and two children in Falls Church, Va.
It hasn't always been an easy ride.
In 2010, he found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to explain a Chamber employee's blog post that blamed the gender wage gap on women who didn't choose the right place to work or the right partner at home. Mr. Chavern characterized it as a simplistic and misguided piece based on old-fashioned values.
The Chamber's aggressive advocacy for Internet piracy laws also landed it in internal strife. The Chamber supported the law because it protects its members in the music and movie industries. The tech sector, though, was furious, and some companies, including Yahoo!, renounced membership over the controversy.
Conflicts of values are expected in an organization that represents so many sectors of the economy, Mr. Chavern said.
"As long as we take principled positions," members usually take it in stride. "Over the hundreds of issues we represent, a member might not agree with us on this one thing, but on hundreds of other issues we weigh in on, they do."
In the end, "We are the voice of business in Washington," he said.
He's also the voice of Pittsburgh.
"I've been trying to tell the Pittsburgh story here. Pittsburgh made an old economy into a new economy," said Mr. Chavern, originally from Elizabeth Township. "I'm still in touch with people back home, and that helps me keep the working-class mind-set and sensibility in mind. Getting up, working hard and trying to make the economy work benefits the discussion."
Around Pittsburgh, where he makes frequent visits, Mr. Chavern is still the guy who cheers for the Steelers, takes his teenage kids to Kennywood, stocks up on local delicacies at Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the Strip and never leaves without visiting Essie's Original Hot Dog Shop in Oakland where "it's all about the fries," he says.
It would be easy to grow an ego working with big names in D.C.
"I certainly don't get a big head. I can't because I'm just that guy from Pittsburgh," he said.
First Published April 29, 2012 1:53 pm