Twenty years ago this summer, I was part of a communications team crafting the GOP response to the acceptance speech by Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee. I was press secretary of the Republican National Committee. The release was quickly distributed after the Dukakis speech and the campaign was enjoined.
During the campaign, the system for communicating the theme of the week, talking points, and the party line was airtight. This process was centralized, to a great extent, on a group of strategists and opposition researchers. It was facilitated through a well-organized field team to local volunteers and party officials who held the party line firm.
In retrospect, that was the beginning of the end of an era in political communications. In the 90s, changes in society, technology, and economics opened the gates for new ways to engage in political debate, civic organization and fund raising. The changes run the spectrum from business-casual dress to political pundits also being Comedy Central show hosts, from the adoption of broadband in the majority of U.S. homes to the venting of poor customer service experiences online. This created a new foundation of social media in democracy. It is the foundation upon which the importance of bloggers has been built and the speed with which news, be it based on rumor or truth, can spread through the electorate.
Republicans have always prided themselves on organization, game plan and execution, similar to a well-run football team. There are set plays, and everyone knows where they are supposed to be – improvisation accepted only if the play breaks down. The Democratic Party brand includes activism and individualism, more like a basketball team. In general there is a plan, but for the most part, basketball is a reaction to the flow of the individual with the ball.
Today, in many respects, the pace and format of how Republicans and Democrats use social media tools is a reflection of their organizational cultures. You can see this in the general presentation of the candidates’ and political parties’ home pages.
RNC: More about getting the message out. Even has a call to action, “Call Talk Radio (see, radio isn’t dead).
DNC: More about party building and getting involved.
McCain: Message dissemination is key for this Web site, and they have approached this as a way to organize under its umbrella. McCainSpace a blogging portal, and the site also has a “Spread the Word” function that attempts to engage bloggers in a dialogue with the campaign and gather information on where and what they are blogging. This site also has a creative way to express McCain’s interest in giving back with a section titled “Cause Greater Than Self.” Here you can volunteer money or time to causes not related to the campaign.
Obama: A comprehensive site that shows an understanding of reaching out to communities where they engage online. His home page has an “Obama Everywhere” box reaching out to more than a dozen online communities. This underscores the Obama campaign’s willingness to be a part of a community as a participant.
There are three key areas in which campaigns use social media:
3) Fund raising
When I was a practicing political operative, we had what were affectionately called “truth squads” – a specific set of people armed with talking points and media training determined to right the wrongs of liberal media and unscrupulous opposition campaign operatives. (My dad used to say, “There are three sides to every story: yours, mine and the truth,” but that’s another story line.) There are still these campaign soldiers working the debate press rooms, but they are joined by a battalion of volunteer bloggers with less orchestration and accountability than 20 years ago. There is, however, a dialogue that both campaigns have put in place with this new generation of online reporters (that word, “reporter,” is more accurate in some cases than others).
When you sign up for McCainSpace or My.BarackObama.com, you will receive e-mails from the campaigns about events, speeches and links to more information. This is the social media era’s attempt at pushing talking points and themes. Where there are blog mentions, there is a way Technorati claims to track it. Both campaigns encourage participation and blogging with a social media point system.
Organizing supporters is the life blood of a campaign, and it’s here that the Web has a critical advantage over all other media, linking people and ideas together. This is why I have said social media is more a movement than a marketplace. Both parties and campaigns have significant tactics for putting people together into all kinds of groups: geographically, by interest, by donor amount (we’ll get to the money next).
Social media is all about organizing communities, so it’s a natural fit for this aspect of the political ground game, whether it be for a physical event or an online objective, like responding to a debate performance, negative ad or major endorsement.
A personal note here: Social media gives unprecedented access to and involvement in the democratic process. While campaigns and parties see this as an opportunity for their cause, society should see it as an opportunity to make democracy more effective and less confrontational. Perhaps this is more my wish than today’s reality. For example, there are Facebook pages that are communicating with those interested in protesting the Republican and Democratic conventions.
There are implications of social media in democracy when parties or candidates choose to participate or host a community. One implication is everyone may not walk in lock-step with a party or a candidate. The classic “loss of control” fear expressed by companies about social media is no different for the political campaign process. It’s perhaps even a greater fear. This week, a potential social media issue is unfolding for the Obama campaign.
It occurred on the My.BarackObama social network and involved a member who openly expressed his dissent about the candidate’s positions as we move toward the general election. It was, in part, ignited by the way the campaign changed the ranking system of its social network members. The change of the rankings also reduced the rank of one of the critics from second highest to lowest. Coincidence? That is unknown to me, but regardless: This would be the ultimate “tail wagging the dog” situation and is the kind of situation that social media advocates always confront.
Both parties have infrastructure and long-established relationships in direct mail, telemarketing and events directly tied to raising money. A presidential campaign’s number one financial priority is to conserve as much money for ad spending as possible. The advertising spend ratio from mainstream media to other media may change as early as 2012, but for today, major media in general and television specifically still are the way most of the candidate’s brand gets to the electorate.
To that end, the low cost of the Internet has been a blessing. It allowed Joe Trippi to fill the coffers of Howard Dean fame. As more people are accustomed to transacting online, this gets easier for campaigns. It’s an extension of Web: low-cost self-help that is available across all forms of society. New technologies such as FreeCause provide a community specific toolbar and allows you to configure donations based on your Web usage.
The Republican National Committee this week launched the GOPToolbar for fundraising efforts. It is tied to Yahoo search and shopping habits in which you can elect to contribute as part of our Web activity. This is also available as a Facebook application.
The Democratic side has several fund-raising programs that incorporate the social aspect of the Web. Democracy Bonds is the party’s attempt to reach 500,000 people who will give $20 per month to raise $10 million. The process is to make it convenient for people to reach out to their friends.
The Democratic Party early on clearly saw the benefits of the tools and jumped on them. Their culture and organizational structure made them fear less about adherence to message and tap into the energy of supporters. Democrats are leveraging social media in the same way Republicans leveraged talk radio in the 1980s.
I was a critic of the lack of social media by the Republican Party for some time. The party’s centralized approach to communications temporarily blinded it to the advantages of reaching out to communities. I mean, let’s face it: The president’s approval rating has been below 50 percent since the winter of 2005. This is not great timing to explore social media. I understand the reluctance to pop your head above the sand given the trend line of the Washington Post-ABC News poll.
However, the page is turning for the Republican Party. Given the cost efficiencies of fund raising, the ability to harness the energies of communities, the power of ideas from bloggers and the success the Democrats have had with the Web, social media is now a must-have strategy in any campaign.
Albert Maruggi is the president of Provident Partners, a PR and social media consultancy. He is also the host of the Marketing Edge podcast and a senior fellow of the Society for New Communications Research. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @albertmaruggi on Twitter.