Web campaign won't win an election - yet. PR pros are heralding the birth of digital ...

Online politics - Web campaign won't win an election - yet. PR pros are heralding the birth of digital politics, but a Net campaign is no guarantee of extra votes.

As if he didn't have enough problems already, Bill Clinton has been castigated for his poor use of the Internet. Speaking at a Washington DC conference on the hot topic of campaigning on the Internet, Phil Noble of Politics Online said Bill's White House site was boring, ineffectual and far from interactive.

There are many who will be surprised at Bill's failure to put his web site in order, especially as many other politicians are taking to the Net as a means of galvanizing both political and financial support.

Straight-laced Republican Bob Dole was doing the Internet thing back in 1996, mentioning his web site several times in one presidential debate.

And one-time wrestler Jesse 'the body' Ventura used the Internet to great effect in his successful campaign to become governor of Minnesota - his campaign team gathered thousands of e-mail addresses at conferences and used them to contact potential voters and elicit their support.

Californian senator Barbara Boxer spent $7,000 on banner ads, and thereby boosted traffic to her campaign site by about 20%. Washington state congressional candidate Brian Baird successfully made an issue of his opponents' missed votes in the state Senate by creating a site called missed votes.com and referring to it in his speeches and literature.

In addition, Noble last week complimented British leader Tony Blair on his use of the Net, and cited Swedish leader Goran Persson's use of the web as one of the reason for his Social Democratic party's victory in the last election.

The new PR of politics
Much has been made of the potential for the Internet to revolutionize the PR side of politics. Just as the backroom ward bosses were rendered insignificant by the rise of political PR pros, so Noble predicts a new generation of consultants coming forward to supersede the media consultants, and focus on the Internet. 'We are seeing the birth of digital politics,' he insisted.

In the last two weeks the media has yet again been full of stories taking up Noble's theme. As CNN anchor Bruce Francis put it: 'Forget the coffees and the $500-a-plate dinners. Political fundraising has found a new home - on the web.' USA Today also made a big play of the Net's potential, saying that 40% of regular voters are online. And Elaine Kamarck of the Harvard JFK School of Government pointed out that the Net not only allowed a more personal form of campaigning, but is cheaper than TV, radio or direct mail.

So why hasn't the leader of the free world sorted out a good Internet site for himself, a site where he can - through his PR men - correspond with his constituents on political issues, or even, dare we say it, on more personal issues?

The simple answer, of course, is that he doesn't have to. He isn't campaigning and he has the world's media at his feet. But Bill could also argue that the age of politics on the Net has not really arrived. Sure, everyone has been talking about it. Sure, there have been a few successful online campaigns. But there is still no hard evidence that anyone has won an election-race, or even raised a significant amount of money, through the Net.

Although 40% of regular voters are online, the percentage of total electorate on the web is still thought to be around the 25-26% mark. And how many of those on the Net are interested in spending their surfing time finding out about their local candidates or about the President's latest mishap?

'The Internet failed to inform the uninformed,' said Bruce Bimber, professor of political science at UC Santa Barbara.

Flawed sites
Even if they did want to get the information, the poor quality of many sites would have prohibited them gleaning what they required. A study of Internet campaigning by the American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies found that candidates have improved the function of their sites since 1996, but many are still flawed. Study authors Don Goff and David Dulio said the sites were too hard to find. 'Campaigns need to post their sites to the Web better,' they said.

Users have also complained that fundamental information, such as contact numbers and addresses, were missing from some sites. 'There was too much glitzy technology, like dancing donkeys,' said David Haase, Washington correspondent of The Indianapolis Star & News. 'Too little contact with the candidate. Too many pictures and not enough useful information.' He said he would like more e-mail - taking the campaign to the voter, rather than the voter going to the campaign - but in Georgia, where Senator Steve Langford sent out a mass e-mail, voters complained about this scattergun technique. 'Spamming', as this mass e-mailing is known, is the ultimate in Internet bad manners.

Furthermore, Kamarck's research showed that although more candidates were online for the recent elections than in any others, the majority stuck to traditional PR tactics. Around 80-90% of gubernatorial candidates were online; fewer Senate candidates had web sites; and in congressional races, less than half of the challengers and only a fifth of the incumbents had a Net campaign. The number of state representatives and coroners online was almost negligible.

Ventura's e-mail campaign probably played a considerably smaller part in his election victory than his 'honesty' and his former career as a wrestler. Baird's missed votes campaign probably only worked because TV ads and rallies supplemented it. And Boxer's campaign manager has gone on record saying that her digital efforts probably only equated to a well-placed billboard.

PR professionals cannot afford to ignore the Internet because it is a cheap and potentially targeted way of getting to the voters. But it looks as if they have a lot of work to do to make candidates' sites and e-mails effective publicity tools.

Doubtless the Net will win an election one day. But the buzz about the 2000 presidential race being won online is no more than buzz.

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