A PIECE IN THE NEW YORK TIMES a few days ago pointed out what others have observed recently: that the Obama campaign has used digital (that is internet, etc.) strategies more skillfully than any of the other campaigns. I'm not one to make such pronouncements, but it's probably safe to say that political campaigns will never be the same again. Or will they?
There's little doubt that the campaign has mobilized followers in ways and in numbers that scarcely any movement or political campaign has before. Those huge crowds of tens of thousands of people who attended Obama rallies late in the primary season and the many who organized their own personal outreaches on his behalf didn't just magically show up. It was all part of a process that made it easy for people who resonated to Obama's message and persona to join the bandwagon. Through social networking tools like Facebook and through Obama's official campaign site, there were many ways that people could connect and feel like they were contributing.
That's very empowering,and it clearly made it possible for many supporters to move from passive support online to real-life action on the hustings.
Didn't all of the campaigns do this? Apparently not. The Times article cited Yochai Benkler, author of “The Wealth of Networks,” an influential book about online collaboration, saying that he "points out a crucial difference between Mr. Obama’s approach to attracting supporters and that of his chief rivals. 'On the McCain and Clinton Web sites, there is a transactional screen,' Mr. Benkler said. 'It is just about the money. Donate, then we can build the relationship. In Obama’s it’s inverted: build the relationship and then donate.'”
Shouldn't every campaign operate like this from now on? Yes, and, well, maybe. A few work colleagues of mine, some of whom actual implement such virtual social networking strategies for our clients, and I sat around yesterday talking about this phenomenon. We agreed on a couple of caveats for any politicians to be cautious of should they decided to campaign as Obama did.
First, a social networking strategy such as Obama's requires the campaign to give a lot of control over the messages and directions of the campaign. Sure, all of the online supporters are given talking points and careful directions about how to behave and proceed in their personal activities. But, for the most part, they were on their own.
That sort of structure scares a lot of campaigns, as you never know if one of your far-flung supporters will say or do something that will embarrass the campaign and the candidate. Though, as my colleague Ben Clark, who has run digital operations for campaigns in the past, pointed out, there seems to be more acknowledgment today that the candidate cannot be held responsible for bad behavior of its distant supporters. That wasn't so true a few years ago, Clark said, when opponents of his boss, Howard Dean, tried to nail him for nasty things a Dean supporter wrote on a chat board someplace.
I hope Ben is right about that. I hold my breath though; desperate political opponents may try anything to tar each other with unfair allegations. And there are people out there who will buy.
Ceding control is risky, too, because if a candidate disappoints in some way, angry followers can turn on him in a second and in force. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
Caveat number two for any candidate who wishes to use digital tools to campaign is this: there's no substitute for a good product. The tools themselves did not win the campaign (so far) for Obama. They were just a medium through which excited followers could express their support. Let's face it, Obama may be one of the best campaigners in a generation (which is saying a lot, as I thought that of Bill Clinton). People want to be a part of his ascension. They are swept away by his spellbinding speeches and star quality.
As a public relations practitioner, I have always laughed when people use the word "spin" to describe what we do. Yes, we can accentuate the positive and try to frame discussions in certain ways. But, at bottom, you can't spin away the truth (without lying, which is not part of the effective p.r. toolbox, as surprising as that may sound to some). When I first started working for a p.r. firm, a friend said of my newly adopted field: "Oh those are the people who make shit taste like ice cream." Well, guess what, no amount of "spin" can make shit taste list ice cream.
Third, as Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the namesake of the DailyKos political blog, said in the Times article, “The Obama campaign is still very much a top-bottom operation. They’ve made it very easy for people to hop on the bandwagon, but those in the back of that wagon still get no say in where the campaign is going.”
One has to wonder if some disillusioned supporters in the back of wagon get frustrated somewhere down the road (maybe after Obama becomes President) that their views are not being taken into account. That the campaign was coveting their bodies only, not their minds. I suspect that most understand that this is just not reasonable, that millions of followers cannot expect to have that kind of input. But what if some walk away feeling stymied, used?
All those caveats aside, it will be fun to watch how Obama uses these new tools of digital communications, taking the political process to a whole new place.