Interview: Joe Trippi

Joe Trippi, principal at Mad River Communications and Joe Trippi & Associates, is best known as the National campaign manager for the Howard Dean 2004 run for president, which was credited as the first campaign to capitalize on peer-to-peer technology for campaign fundraising and outreach.

Joe Trippi, principal at Mad River Communications and Joe Trippi & Associates, is best known as the National campaign manager for the Howard Dean 2004 run for president, which was credited as the first campaign to capitalize on peer-to-peer technology for campaign fundraising and outreach.

Aside from his work as a political consultant, Trippi is also a corporate and nonprofit communications consultant, and the author of The Revolution will not be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything.

PRWeek: Going back a little bit before we talk about the recent mid term elections, when you first started working on the Dean campaign, did you realize you would be creating a new way of campaigning?

Joe Trippi: We knew we wanted to use the Internet, the blogosphere, and new media to leap out of the rest of the field. We thought we could build a community and raise money doing it. I don't know that we thought at the time that we would raise $59 million and have 650,000 [supporters] sign up. But we definitely knew that's what we wanted to do.

PRWeek: What were your expectations?

Trippi: We thought we would have a hard time getting press from the likes of CNN or The New York Times. No Democrat had ever raised more than $45 million. Back when we were seven staffers and 432 known supporters nationwide and the Internet was all we had, we definitely were not thinking we'd raise more money than any Democrat in history. We thought it would help us be competitive.

PRWeek: How much of it do you think was the Internet and how much was Dean's message or his personality?

Trippi: Certainly the message and the personality had a lot to do with it, but there's no way the word would've gotten out without the peer-to-peer messaging of the net.  No one would've ever heard of us.

The press would write stories about how John Kerry, John Edwards, and Dick Gephardt said [something] and 20 paragraphs later, in the very end, also running are Dennis Kucinich, Howard Dean and Carol Moseley Braun. We were lumped into the last paragraph of every story with that perfunctory "these are the other idiots running."

The message obviously got 432 people's attention, but what was different was how they were able to get that message to their friends, by talking to their peers, IM'ing, sending emails, on blogs, and other word-of-mouth techniques. [We weren't just growing a list. People were] actually doing things, getting involved offline in events that changed politics forever and I think will change corporate public relations forever. This is not going to stop in the political walled-in garden. It's going to be everywhere.

PRWeek: You write in the introduction to your book that the press' spotlight was also to your detriment. Do you think new media strategies can take the edge off of that spotlight?

Trippi: Currently we live in a top down communications world. That's still pretty powerful, but it's losing power every day to a bottom-up, peer-to-peer exchange of information.

It's actually good, but the top-down strategists - PR firms, print press, news networks - they're used to having control. If the bottom is gaining that power (and that's what I think you see with Napster, the Dean campaign), it's hard to control the message. It's in the hands of people and that's a very tough thing. If you're trying to control your brand image, or corporate image, or your political party, you've got a problem because the old rules don't work anymore. It's going to be tougher to play by the old rules and continue to be relevant.

[The Dean campaign was] just the first impulse of that. The technology and the way people use it was not yet mature. Now it's growing stronger, and I think you're going to see it effect corporate communications, government communications, as well as political communications.

PRWeek: What technologies are available now that weren't available to you then? How can they work most effectively for corporate, government, and political communications? 

Trippi: Obviously YouTube did not exist during the 2004 campaign.  In the recent elections you saw in Virginia with Sen. George Allen making his "macaca" comments that just blew up his campaign. I think 100,000 people viewed that on YouTube before it started making its way to the mainstream media.

This is going to start to become a bigger problem not just for established political norms, but also for PR and advertising as well. It's going to be very disruptive for PR professionals.

PRWeek: In these mid term elections, were there any other new innovations that were used effectively?

Trippi: MySpace and Facebook were just coming online at end of the 2004. You saw them [put to] real use in 2006 and these social networks will also start affecting not just politics. They're already affecting movies and the recording industry. I think it's going to reach beyond that and start affecting corporate America and government as these tools get used by more Americans.

MySpace is the most visited site on the net with over 100 million users. YouTube has [70 million] views a day now. And you look at the fact that 21 million Americans watch the evening news with any regularity on network television. The numbers on YouTube and MySpace are far exceeding the number of people who are watching the evening news.

And when you put that with the other things like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report where people are getting more of their news from those comedy shows than from the real news shows, suddenly you're seeing this huge shift in how you have to communicate with people. It's user-generated and it's peer-to-peer, and that's something PR professionals and political consultants aren't used to.

PRWeek: You spoke recently at the USC Annenberg's annual Kenneth Owler Smith Symposium. What did you discuss?

Trippi: I used an example that got a lot of attention: When Wendy's had the problem with the woman who said she found a finger in a bowl of chili, Wendy's started to lose customers hand over fist. Three or four weeks later, the word got out that the woman was a hoax. It took a while for the PR professionals at Wendy's to handle this and get Wendy's back into shape.

This is happening in that world where only 21 million people are watching the news on a regular basis. In the world of this new medium where Brian Williams announces that someone has found a finger in their chili, two young people with $500 go into the garage with their Mac and make a cartoon like the JibJab cartoon "This Land is Your Land" that made fun of Kerry and Bush [during the 2004 presidential campaign]. They make this cartoon where every time they bite into a cartoon burger, FLING!, a finger flies out. And they're dancing on tables at a cartoon Wendy's restaurant and when they're holding up their up their hands dancing to the music, there are no fingers on their hands. We all laugh and send this to everyone in our address book. In two weeks 65 million Americans have watched it. That's what happened with "This Land is Your Land."

So now 65 million Americans are sending this viral animation that's making everyone laugh at Wendy's because people are finding fingers in their food. How do you put this back in the box?

Corporations, government, and political parties have to start building tools that enable the consumer to become part of the community and to help build the brand. A lot of the status quo in PR and politics will say "No, no, no. We have to maintain discipline and control of our message." But they will be dinosaurs over the long haul. This is a massive shift in communications and in power.

That's what we understood in the Dean campaign even in the infant stages. It's becoming more important for companies and PR professionals to start thinking about the kind of changes they have to make to empower the consumer and build the brand. Otherwise, I think there'll be a corporate Katrina, a company will be really hurt badly. When the PR person at Wendy's sends out the e-mail saying that was a hoax, no one is going to think that's the coolest thing they ever saw and send that on to everyone in their address book. It's going to be because you built a community online that's part of that conversation and is going to defend your brand.

PRWeek: There are a lot of PR professionals trying to find the best way to approach this change. Do you have any suggestions?

Trippi: What I tell everybody is you've got to get in the water. This isn't going away. Don't dive into the deep end, but you have to at least learn how to dog paddle because in a couple of years, the water is going to be way over your head.

There aren't that many people that understand the implications to your corporation, and I think the companies that figure this out are going to be the ones that succeed in the future. You're going to lose control of brand identity if you don't start learning how to use these tools and empower consumers to help you build the brand.

The first instance of this was the recording industry. They sat there saying "We're going to make you by the whole album to get the one song that doesn't suck." That's how the recording industry was perceived by its customers. Customers said, "We can connect on the Internet. We're going to change the rules." Napster comes along and millions of people started exchanging music. Everyone thinks Napster lost, but the consumer voted and the consumer won. And music is being distributed completely differently than it was and in a way that the music industry never wanted to do it.

The key to that is the recording industry [was] Goliath and there [was] an army of Davids saying. "We're not going to do it that way anymore." Apple decided it was going to be the slingshot with iPod and iTunes. The recording industry got its butt kicked. That's the future across the board.

PRWeek: Many businesses and PR firms are turning to blogs and experiential events and promotions.

Trippi: And Second Life.

PRWeek: Do you think they're using these tools most effectively?

Trippi: I think it's very uneven. I think some are doing a good job. This is what I mean about getting your toe in the water. Second Life is pretty impressive to me. Opening a store on Second Life is not going to kill the company. But how many companies have actually experimented with it? Even failing at it, you learn something and it's not the most expensive thing in the world.

The thing that amazes me is the companies that will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on television ads, not budge anything, but won't take the risk of doing something in Second Life because it "might hurt our corporate image." They've got to break out of that mindset.

You have several companies where the Internet still doesn't exist except they're putting a brochure up as a web site. And then there are some companies that are doing some really innovative things, starting to see the future, and build it.

PRWeek: Can you give me an example?

IBM is interesting. It has urged all 347,000 employees to start their own blog, setting up their own internal rules and guidelines. That's an amazing thing for Big Blue to do. IBM [is] fairly conservative in its business practices. If it's decided that it's important to have every one of its employees to start their own blog, that's a good sign to other companies that they ought to look at how communications is changing.

The last I heard, [there were] something like 36,000 [people blogging].

If each one of those [347,000] employees have about 10 people reading their blog on a daily basis, that's 3.5 million people in a conversation with IBM. If one of those employees runs into a brilliant idea that was discussed on [their] blog, he or she knows how to move that idea up.

That's putting a human filter on the inbox for the corporation. It's interesting and bold.

YouTube is going to become an interesting arena, to see more corporations put their stuff there. Even today this is just the infant stage with a lot of companies.

PRWeek: The fear that a lot of people have is the big YouTube gaffe. Is YouTube good irrespective of that?

Trippi: I'm saying some CEO is going to say something really stupid at some Rotary Club, and it's going to end up on the Internet and it's going to end up creating the same kind of furor. Your normal PR machinery inside the corporation is not going to be able to deal with it. You can't pull 1 million downloads back from YouTube. Suddenly you're in a totally different world. And I'm not sure David Letterman is going to want your guy the way he wanted Michael Richards.  No one can be on guard 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Now anyone with a cell phone with a video camera on it can become a reporter to 100 million people on YouTube. This is a different kind of PR problem. The potential of dealing with that with normal PR apparatuses is nil.

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