Alex Aiken: Can we learn? Yes we can!

Barack Obama's election campaign was a masterclass in political communications, combining the ancient political skill of 'rhetoric' with the latest 'twittering'. His success provides a blueprint for a new approach to public communication.

His use of social media is highlighted across the industry as the case study in the power of digital conversation. But this focus on the tactical aspect of the campaign misses the key point about the power of the strategy. The relentless discipline, simplicity of message and power of his speeches represent a new approach to engaging the public.

The obsession over the past decade with the importance of centralised negative campaigning and the value of winning each news cycle now seems puny when faced with the power of a coherent appeal. Obama could afford to concede a few news bulletins when the overall argument had been won so comprehensively.

There were two critical elements to this new strategy that should interest public communicators. First, the use of social media to create a conversation with people. This created advocates and turned bystanders into activists, fans into fundraisers. Second, giving these new advocates access to privileged party information such as canvassing databases. Both tactics reinforced the core message, 'Yes we can'. How often do UK politicians or public servants really share power with citizens in this way?

Governing is different from campaigning, but the lessons of the campaign trail are valuable - and often ignored - in public service. It is surprising how we forget that communication is a process of speaking, listening and acting. In government, PR campaigns are often simply attempts to dump information on to the public without considering impact or feedback. Sometimes this is the response to the need to tick, or click, a box. On many occasions it's a kneejerk reaction to a political demand to 'do something', ignoring the evidence.

We can change. Government has much to do to build public trust in a cold economic climate. We should use the Obama doctrine to restart a national conversation using the new channels at our disposal.

Alex Aiken is director of comms at Westminster City Council.

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