NEWS ANALYSIS: The cutting edge of political PR

One of LabourHome's media officers reports on how his team is using new digital tactics from the US election to campaign for a new Labour treasurer.

David Cameron canvasses via the web
David Cameron canvasses via the web

Our industry is teeming with folk who are constantly looking for new ways to reach audiences. As such there is huge interest in the election that is taking place 'across the pond' and how we might import the latest campaign innovations.

This probably explains the number of colleagues who have emailed me since PRWeek wrote about the campaign with which I've recently been involved (PRWeek, 8 February).

Our campaign, by the largest independent blog for Labour supporters, LabourHome.org, challenges the re-election of Labour Party treasurer, Jack Dromey, on behalf of human rights barrister, Mark McDonald.

It is almost accepted that the Americans are ahead of us in most things and that, just like bubblegum and rock'n'roll, the latest trends will eventually cross the Atlantic. But it is still taking us a while to catch on to digital developments.

The main stumbling block is the leap of faith needed in the use of social media such as Facebook, YouTube, blogs and video sharing, which ultimately involves giving more power to the people.

Politicians have been falling over themselves as they try to look clever using new media, with most of Labour's recent deputy leadership candidates populating Facebook, producing their own blogs and even venturing on to applications such as Twitter and Flickr.

All parties are dipping their toes in the water - WebCameron anybody? - but there is still a sense that watching politicians trying to use new media is a bit like watching your dad dance at a wedding.

Current political campaign orthodoxy states that party HQ in London passes down commandments to an army of canvassers. They then knock on doors and receive abuse from citizens who are nonplussed about the policies and behaviour of HQ.

But imagine a world where there is a "members only" online debate with the party leader, campaign manager or policy chief: members can give feedback from the doorstep and - shock horror - contribute to policy. This would provide an enthused base that is more effective in responding to negatives at ground level, a dying breed for the three main parties in the UK.

It would be a mistake to think that digital campaigning is either astonishingly clever or demands gadgets and technology. The key is in the approach: always talking to people where they congregate (not building a website and trying to 'drive' people to it), talking in their language and getting into proper conversations.

Our campaign for McDonald is already generating buzz among online influencers. Last week 15 blogs discussed his candidature with their readers and asked for views about whether to endorse him, whether local branches should nominate and demanding more information from the candidate about what he stands for - and quite rightly too.

The team monitors this constantly to ensure the candidate responds quickly, honestly and in the right language. This involves being respectful and knowledgeable of your audience and always being open and responsive.

Our job from here is to continue to make the candidate 'useful' to our top 20 online influencers; sites, forums, blogs that discuss issues relevant to us and have audiences to whom we need to speak. We've come up with our own software to do this (see box for detail).

Over the next few weeks we need to convince grassroots influencers that this campaign is worth backing. The internet enables us to do this. While McDonald will go and meet as many Labour constituencies as possible, he just doesn't have time to do a day job and visit more than 600 constituencies in the next six weeks.

We hope that as many as possible of the people with whom he interacts will make their voices heard within their network; friends, contacts, trade unions or local councillors.

We want them to nominate McDonald, sign up to his Facebook group, write to their Labour MP, write to their local newspaper and force the Labour Party, trade union and media establishment to listen and understand that the grassroots, the people who make the party tick, want a change.

Not just a new treasurer but also a new way of being spoken to and listened to. A lesson that private and public sector organisations are learning every day.

Mark Hanson is a partner at Staniforth PR

PRWeek PODCAST: See Mark Hanson nominate his pick of the blogging politicians

TARGETING INFLUENCERS ONLINE
A social media audit will tell us where audiences are congregating online, what their trusted sources of information are and the influencers of the conversations taking place online. We then rank those influencers and their level of influence and seek to influence them. HERE'S HOW:

- We identify hundreds of words or phrases best associated with our target market, e.g. 'Labour Party funding' or 'Jack Dromey asleep on the job'. They are fed into a software package that will trawl the entire web to find sites, blogs and forums where these terms are being used. A typical trawl then identifies and downloads between 3,000 and 50,000 relevant documents and web pages.

- All the identified material is analysed by another software-based tool for authoritative in-bound links, the quality of the audience and the quality and relevance of the content. This tells us where our audience is.

- Within this network we can identify the influencers - those people that are most listened to, and who drive those conversations. In politics, pre-television, this may have been the local bank manager, shop steward or vicar. In the internet world, people have less obvious sources of peer-to-peer recommendation. This kind of technology enables us to identify them and measure their level of influence.

- We then produce recommendations of how to make the candidate 'useful' to those networks, which will include providing relevant copy, creating events such as a live Q&A forum or offering relevant video.

- By marrying a bit of new thinking with good old-fashioned PR; i.e. finding your audience and who influences them and then approaching them in an appropriate way that helps them serve their audience, we can secure powerful advocacy and grassroots support.

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