“Humans like to know about the good, the bad, and the ugly side of people, places, and situations, as well as to share this information with others, often as quickly as possible.” – Lon Safko and David Brake in The Social Media Bible
How does the political arena see social media? An explanation from the recent issue of Campaigns & Issues:
Down Home Digital: Minding Your Social Media
By Steve Pearson and Ford O’Connell
While everyone is trying to figure out the changing media landscape or even what to call it, we can agree that a campaign’s ability to share information online—via blogging, e-mailing, twittering, social networking, video sharing, etc.—represents a growing opportunity to shape public perception to its advantage. How much of this potential can be realized is up to the campaign. That pretty much sums up the fundamental difference between “traditional media” and “new media”—no one is waiting to receive your press release in the new media. You’re on your own.
Despite the doom and gloom headlines, the traditional media haven’t disappeared or become less important to a campaign. However, how traditional news organizations identify what to cover has changed dramatically. There are a lot fewer producers, editors, and reporters to read your press releases (if anyone was ever reading them to begin with). The new media channels available to your campaign are becoming the gateway to traditional media coverage. If reporters can see your campaign in the blogs and on social networks, it’s easier for them to believe you have a story worthy covering.
Even before the traditional media pick up your story, these new media channels have their own value— not the least important being that campaigns can more directly shape their own stories. If you’re not convinced of the value of defining the storyline, think for a moment about the scenario where your opponent uses new media to paint your campaign in an unflattering light. Without the editorial filters of traditional media, rumors and perceptions can become established “truth” and require overwhelming effort to beat them down with facts. Unlike expensive attack ads or direct mail, even the smallest campaign or interest group can create a blog or Web site to draw attention to their point of view.
The blurring of the lines between “official” news sites, established political bloggers, campaign blogs, and even individual activists with personal blogs makes it even more important for your campaign to get ahead of the 24-hour news cycle and lay the groundwork for your story in advance. When it becomes difficult for voters to distinguish between a story with fully vetted facts and a personal vendetta based on half-truths, you do not want to be playing defense. We all know how voters tend to be more receptive to news that reinforces their initial opinion. Now that the hurdle to publishing and distributing “news” has been lowered, you want to be making the first moves to lay out the path for your campaign’s story, rather than scrambling to undo a story that has already taken on a life of its own.
Unlike your personal use of blogging and social media, which for most folks just “goes with the flow,” your campaign should follow a more programmed approach. This will change over the course of the campaign as you introduce yourself, expand your network, encourage donations, and make the final push to get out the vote. Not that you need to script out every tweet from now until November, but your campaign should plan the broad themes and timing of what it wants to communicate. For example, if you are presenting the candidate as an expert on a specific issue, a regular series of blog posts supported by e-mail newsletters, Facebook posts, and Twitter alerts with links to the blog might work. If you are trying to present the candidate as connected with the everyday lives of constituents, then posting a daily photo of the candidate at breakfast or a local event with voters might be the way to go.
One thing you don’t have to worry about is repeating yourself. You see everything that goes on your Web site or Facebook page; but the voters will see only a fraction of what you publish. This isn’t television or radio where you repeat the exact same ad to hit a ratings point target, but you can come back to the same points every day. Just use different examples to illustrate the point you want to make. The easiest way to keep your message authentic and fresh is to draw from your daily campaign activities. To do this effectively, you’ll want to include your entire team in the process when thinking about how to present the candidate via social media. If the person accompanying the candidate remembers to snap the right photo, if the person organizing an event promotes it on Twitter, if the video team produces cuts for the Web, you have a better shot of pushing out information that your supporters will appreciate—and share, which, at the end of the day, is the whole point of this social media thing.
Steve Pearson is president of CivicNEXT, which provides practical networking, communications, and fundraising solutions for political campaigns and organizations. Ford O’Connell, a 2010 Rising Star, is president of ProjectVirginia, winner of the 2010 Reed Award for Best Use of Twitter and whose blog reports on “Where Politics Meets Social Media.”