'The social (media) party will win' - why are big comms agencies in France staying out of the presidential elections?

For a long time in France, major communication agencies loved to display their support to presidential candidates. All the key industry names used to commit to our political wannabes.

Whoever the eventual winner, it is social media which will clinch victory in the French presidential election, argues François Ramaget
Whoever the eventual winner, it is social media which will clinch victory in the French presidential election, argues François Ramaget

It started with the historical image of Francois Mitterrand posing in front of a traditional village, embodying "The quiet force".

And it remained a tradition until Mr Hollande’s campaign in 2012, designed by a subsidiary of TBWA.
But this year, big agencies are absent.

The few consultancies that venture into the election are smaller players, PA agency Image 7 supporting François Fillon, and two new agencies – "Jesus et Gabriel" and Littlewing – supporting Emmanuel Macron.

But why this divorce between men of power and big agencies?

One obvious reason for them to leave the field is caution: The game has changed, as elections evolve from right wing vs left wing to a complex lottery, where nobody can predict the name of the next president.

And investing time and money to support a candidate that’s got one chance out of five to win (Fillon, Hamon, Le Pen, Macron, Mélenchon – in alphabetical order) is not attractive to listed companies.

But the main reason might be social media - fostering a direct link to the electorate, while generating the fragmentation of the political message. Nice portraits and taglines are not enough to convince any more.

Candidates have to nurture their story with minute-by-minute updates, which is the role of social channels.

All 11 candidates are on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Some are on Instagram or Snapchat.

Community management demands ongoing attention and candidates prefer to have their own teams to manage their digital presence - and they’re right.

Just an example: When Francois Fillon officially revealed his new poster claiming "Une volonté pour la France" (A will for France), it only took a few hours for opponents to transform it into "Un vol pour la France" (A theft).

Fillon supporters’ counter attack didn't take long with the creation of @Emmanuelhollande, a hybrid character mixing the faces of Francois Hollande and Emmanuel Macron, to describe candidate Macron as some sort of a hidden Hollande, and this new persona has been incredibly active on Twitter with more than 3,000 tweets in a week.

Social media is key to adapting to the rhythm of media revelations that regularly impact the reputation of major contenders.

And their popularity is very much dependent on their ability to cope with these media stunts.

In a context that’s social-media-driven, we can see the 'uberisation' of political communications, with little place for ad agency support.

From a democratic perspective, this might be a good thing.

Candidates have to behave in real time, beyond media training - and citizens might be in a better position to make an informed choice. Whatever the outcome, the social (media) party will win these elections.

From an industry perspective, this presidential race makes a case for today’s PR because digital literacy, high flexibility and crisis capabilities are key strengths for any competitive battle.

François Ramaget is president of Paris-based PR agency Gootenberg

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