Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Social Networking/Media in Campaigns

Social media has become a force in the dissemination of news, opinion, and information. It has also begun to play a significant role in politics, as the advent of online fundraising and word-of-mouth movements are becoming important parts of candidates and causes getting out their message. All of this got me to thinking: could a person with no political experience who is neither well-off personally (and thus able to self-fund) nor well-connected in the political arena use social networking and the media platforms of such (Twitter and Facebook being the primary ones) as both the starting point for and the main vehicle in a campaign for public office? I am looking at this through the lens of developing a campaign strategy for an potential candidate for an open seat in next spring's local elections.


To me, using Twitter and Facebook as the first step in getting a campaign off the ground begins with friendraising. I define friendraising exactly as it is written, being the raising of friends. The relationship aspect of social networking I don't believe has been fully utilized in coalescing a group of individuals who know a person and care about him/her to then act upon their behalf in the political arena. I have seen it work well in generating funds and advocacy for charities and non-profit organizations via the power of existing relationships and feel that a similar approach can work in politics.

So how do you use friendraising to lead into a campaign? First, let's take our potential candidate. The person is fairly well-known in the Twittersphere (follows 1800, followed by over 2000) and has been active in cultivating relationships there. I believe a person either considering a run for elected office or a political consultant seeking out a candidate can tap into this existing network as the first piece in the puzzle. In this case, the consultant has started to talk both via social media and in real life with the potential candidate and their crossover network (people known by both the candidate and the operative) about running. The crossover network creates the energy and I believe some of the key manpower (treasurer, campaign manager, PR) to make a run viable. In effect, these people form the campaign committee for the candidate. Additionally, this network becomes the opening source of funding for the candidate, because they are and will be his/her friends regardless of how the race goes and there is no quid pro quo involved.

Public Relations

Much is already written and known about using social media for public relations, so I won't delve too far into that other than to lay out how I could perceive it being used with this potential candidacy. Starting with the crossover network, these individuals tap into their own personal bases of followers/friends on behalf of the candidate, talking him/her up and promoting their candidacy. Groups on Facebook and lists on Twitter are great way of developing these types of coalitions to rally around an individual in that the privacy settings allow one to do through social media what used to be only available by means of face-to-face meetings or email (document sharing, strategizing, planning). On top of that, blogs are a useful way to get a candidate's positions into the public sphere without needing to go to mass media at the start. More so, "word-of-mouth" advertising (I tell my followers, they tell theirs, etc.) and "whisper campaigns" via Twitter gives a candidate a much quicker and broader reach than traditional advertising, democratizing access to the public's consciousness.

One thing that I have not seen in political PR via social media is the candidate being accessible to the populace in a way that is quick, transparent, and reflects the truth of the person and not a facade or persona. Taking the last two weeks' worth of tweets of two potential candidates (one who has run in the past, one who hasn't), there is a serious contrast. The former's tweets are very neutral, informational, deal a little with home life but give no hint as to personality, positions, or who the person is, which is a traditional approach to politics and Twitter. The latter's stream is a rich tapestry of family life, political opinion, jovialness with friends and followers, and invites the reader/follower to interact. I am hoping that this level of candor can be maintained as it would reflect a shift in how candidates use social media to not just get their message out, but also to make friends of their supporters.

Hitting the Streets

Friendraising and public relations are great, but campaigns are won and lost on the streets. Knocking doors, appearing in town halls, and attending community events are how candidates are able to meet the people and give them the ability to put a face to a name. Candidates that are well-known and have special interest involvement in their campaigns have a distinct advantage in this area, as they can put more "boots on the ground" both in terms of numbers and times of day/week. To match those numbers, the power of social networking must be brought to the table. As with public relations, word-of-mouth through social media platforms gets the need and necessary information out to a large number of individuals in a very short period of time, which allows those people to pass along the word. People who know you (either virtually or in real life) are more apt to brave the weather during spring campaign season (signature gathering in December, campaigning in January and early February) and will stay in contact in between events than those who are motivated by organizational self-interest.

I must say, this is in a way a rough draft of how I'd look at harnessing the power of social networking and media to make friends, influence people, and win elections. Feel free to give me suggestions, ideas, or real-life experience from past campaigns that will make what I say work better. Remember, ANYONE can run for office!

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