Jun 27, 2016 / by Jim Dougherty

“There’s an app called Periscope, and I understand that if too many people watch it that it crashes, so if other people had it or wanted to download it, maybe they’d like to try it out too and it would generate a little more capacity for the effort.” – Rep. Scott Peters

Last week, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives staged a sit-in to bring attention to their perspective on gun control. This is an unusual tactic (at least so far as national politics are concerned), and in response Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House ended the “formal session.”

While ending a legislative session may seem rote, it effectively ended the C-SPAN broadcast of the session (and video coverage of the sit-in). What happened next was possibly one of the most effective PR uses of live streaming to date.

Without the C-SPAN coverage and intent to create awareness around their protest, legislators used their mobile devices and started live-streaming the sit-in using the Periscope app. Using other social media outlets they encouraged supporters to watch the scope, but it was unneccesary: C-SPAN and CNN picked up their Periscope broadcast and televised it (some legislators broadcasted on Facebook Live as well).

I know that gun control and political sensibilities are sensitive topics for most people, and my intention isn’t to highlight or promote a political point of view. What I want to illustrate in this post is that the use of live streaming by these politicians may be one of the most useful case studies in how to effectively use this social tactic for communication. And there are numbers to back this assertion up: the Facebook Live stream had 3 million views alone, not counting Periscope’s, C-SPAN’s or CNN’s views.

1. Live-Streaming Content Captures a Specific (High-Interest) Moment


Why is live streaming so underutilized? It is an emergent technology with a lot of buzz, yet the user base is rather low relative to other social platforms. There may be low awareness around the apps (Periscope, Facebook Live and YouTube Live), but there is also a stream-of-consciousness aspect that pervades much of this content.

It’s not especially entertaining to watch people spontaneously muse with these products, when people can see better production value and more thoughtful content on YouTube or elsewhere.

The legislators who started a scope of their sit-in had four important things that made their live stream interesting:

  • High-interest: The sit-in had a level of interest from the public (a sit-in is an unusual occurrence, and the gun debate was topical).
  • Exclusivity: Without C-SPAN coverage, Periscope was the only way to see what was happening at this sit-in. If C-SPAN was available, these scopes would be far less significant or interesting.
  • Novelty: It’s rare to see prominent people (celebrities) in an informal setting. Although the House chamber is hardly informal, the Periscope feed was much rawer and more informal in appearance than C-SPAN’s cameras.
  • Time: The live stream was long enough for people to gain awareness of the event and to view it.

These conditions aren’t consistently replicable, and that’s one of the challenges to live streaming. However, there are certain situations (such as newsworthy events where a mobile device is the only means for broadcast) where live-streaming apps will be important communication tools.

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2. Live-Streaming Audiences May Have a Learning Curve

One of the more interesting aspects of the political live stream was the technical challenges. Some coverage was critical of how legislators used Periscope, but the process that Rep. Scott Peters (the primary scope that most sources picked up) went through to broadcast are the same learning curves necessary for any broadcaster.

Given the criteria set above for creating a high-interest live stream, this isn’t a unique situation. But the congressional live streamers also experienced a learning curve by the viewers.

Because live-streaming apps are so rarely used, many people may have downloaded or used the app for the first time. There were instructional tweets sent out describing where to download the app, how to comment and how to give “hearts.

I think this is an aspect of live streaming that hasn’t been explored as much: wider distribution of this sort of content may present viewers with a learning curve that they need to overcome to view, share and interact with the content.

3. Live Streaming Has Technical Limitations (and Requirements)


“This is the joy of technology.” – C-SPAN commentator, describing the Periscope live-stream

Live-streaming apps are much more susceptible to technical limitations because they are mobile. I shared the story of my first Facebook Live broadcast where Wi=Fi signal kept all of my Facebook friends from hearing my daughter’s first violin recital (although I suspect few were disappointed). Here are some technical limitations that the HOR Scopes encountered:

  • Wi-Fi signal – Apparently the Wi-Fi in the House of Representatives is pretty fast.
  • Device – Rep. Peters used his iPhone to live-stream the sit-in, but of course camera resolution varies widely between iOS devices and Android devices.
  • Lighting and Sound – There’s very little that you can do to control these in the moment, but you’ll notice that the lighting was less than ideal and the sound was erratic between different feeds.
  • Capacity – Although this is probably one of the least-likely technical limitations you or I might encounter, the HOR streamed multiple streams to avoid overloading Periscope’s servers.

4. Live Streaming Has Practical Limitations

The primary Scope of the event was interrupted when the Rep. Peters had to recharge his phone.

5. Awareness of Live Streaming Is increasing

Even with the hype surrounding them, awareness of live-streaming apps has been low. Use of live-streaming apps is proportionally low as well. However, as events like the live-stream sit-in and others are brought to people’s attention, awareness and use will increase. With the addition of YouTube Live this will hopefully increase.

What’s not so clear is how awareness will translate to use. But awareness is a start.


The recent implementation of live streaming in the U.S. House of Representatives will probably be an important case study in the effectiveness of these platforms to communicate. I assert that it was the conditions (high-interest, exclusive content, promotion) that made these streams so popular. In other words, the representatives that staged this sit-in probably couldn’t replicate the awareness that they generated for another issue.

What this demonstrates is that in specific instances, live streaming may be a very effective means for communication. Hopefully, if these special instances arise you’ll be able to leverage live streaming apps to create awareness as effectively as these legislators did.


Images via Pixabay: 1, 2, 3

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About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.