As the communications director of the Republican National Committee, Sean Spicer is fond of saying, “There is no better laboratory for social media than politics.” That has been evident in the lead-up to the presidential campaign, in which both the Republican and Democratic National Committees are using the immediacy of social media to influence the political narrative virtually as it's being written.
For presidential candidates and their parties, every campaign stop, press conference, and media event is an opportunity to tweet, post, and blog – all in an effort to gain the upper hand or, at the very least, discredit the opposition.
Within minutes of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address earlier this year, for example, the Republican National Committee released a YouTube video called “Familiar Rhetoric, Failed Record.” It mashed up excerpts of the address with similar or identical excerpts from Obama's 2011 and 2010 State of the Union speeches.
Twenty-four hours after being posted, Spicer says the video had 500,000 views, climbing to 900,000 in less than a week. In addition to online views, cable TV news and conservative media outlets also played the video – all media time generated without Republicans paying for it.
“The nut of social media in politics isn't about whether you save money or not because we have been doing some promoted tweets and online advertising as well,” notes Spicer. “It's really about the fact you can target your messaging with social media and see whether or not something is working. Sometimes you hit the bull's-eye and other times you're completely off target, but you'll find out quickly either way.”
With a short iteration cycle and relatively tight budgets, the presidential campaign has been a hotbed for social media innovation, as demonstrated by the role it played in Obama's 2008 election victory. And corporate marketers would be well served to learn from the way it's being harnessed, says Christina Reynolds, MD at The Glover Park Group and former director of media affairs at the White House and director of rapid response at Obama for America.
“Politicians of all stripes have done better than most corporations in terms of using social media as a two-way communication channel,” she says.
Success in social media has a “lot to do with a willingness to take risks, engage with the public, and being nimble,” adds Josh Hendler, global chief technology officer for Hill+Knowlton Strategies and the former director of technology at the Democratic National Committee. He says organizations are much more risk averse, particularly around digital. “Large organizations are inherently conservative internally when it comes to anything to do with digital and social media.”
As a stand-out example of a corporation engaging on social media, Hendler cites American Express' Open Forum, an online resource and social networking hub for small-business owners and entrepreneurs looking for practical information and tips from experts. On the consumer side, he lauds Nike+, a running site with a very active online community.
Turning followers into activists
Indeed, political campaigns and candidates don't use social media just to disseminate information to followers.
“The real question for them has become how to translate millions of followers into tens of thousands of activists,” says Michael Gehrke, VP of Benenson Strategy Group who was at the Democratic National Committee during the last presidential campaign. “That's the challenge for politicians who really want to use social media as an effective communications tool.”
Last fall, Obama and the Democrats demonstrated how Twitter can be used as more than just a platform for campaign messaging. President Obama created a “Tweet for Jobs” tool designed to help his supporters put pressure on GOP lawmakers to pass his American Jobs Act. By entering their email and physical address, the tool allowed even the politically unaware to select a pre-written tweet to the Republican legislator in their area or, if they didn't have one, to Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner.
The tool builds on previous Obama initiatives such as Tweet Your Senator, a Twitter and Google Maps mash-up designed to urge senators to pass healthcare-reform legislation, says Hendler.
“While political campaigns are garnering most online actions from email-based communications, we're seeing more and more responses from social media,” observes Hendler. “Things such as Tweet Your Senator use the medium itself to turn people into activists rather than pushing people outside of the medium to do something else. This type of simple but powerful technology can be used to engage and leverage social media followers to take action on your behalf.”
If a party or politician captures the imagination of followers on social media, some of them will also start pushing out party content such as a re-tweet, video, or photograph from a campaign rally that might, in turn, influence their followers.
As Spicer explains to PRWeek, “You want to create an ongoing relationship with voters and get people invested behind a candidate, party, or issue so that they become part of the team and advocate on your behalf for months on end, as opposed to just right at the end of the campaign.
“Ultimately,” he continues, “what any candidate, party, or corporation wants is for people to share their experience with a product or why they're supporting a political party or candidate. There is no greater endorsement than someone's family member, friend, or coworker sharing that kind of information with someone else.”
Corporate lessons from the campaign trail
Agency executives believe there is still much corporate communicators can learn from the best practices that have emerged from social media-astute political players.
Think Smaller and More Immediate
Christina Reynolds, MD at The Glover Park Group, says political parties have innovated when it comes to social media because they have to build their “brand” in a relatively short time frame and with relatively limited funds. And with early voting, traditional media is just too expensive a tactic. “Politicians are willing to try different things when it comes to new technology and they're reaping tremendous benefits,” she says. “Brands need to try the same.”
Minimize Approval Chains
This is particularly vital during crisis PR, when corporations need to get communications out quickly. Unfortunately, many brands get tripped up in bureaucracy. “Campaigns have been fantastic about utilizing social networks to do rapid response,” says Josh Hendler, Hill+Knowlton Strategies' global chief technology officer and former tech director at the Democratic National Committee. “That means minimizing the approval chains for pushing out communications and replying quickly to opponent communications when they push something out.”
Social Media is Not One Size Fits All
Social media is not an across-the-board cure-all, says Scott Goodstein, president and founder of Revolution Messaging. “Social media is moving throughout every component of a political campaign today, but the way a campaign manager, communications team, and field team use Facebook and Twitter is very different from one another.” Likewise, the way a company uses social media for its brand marketing, media outreach, and customer complaints should also be very different.
As the expression goes, content is king. That holds true in the world of social media and politics. To maximize Obama's State of the Union address, for instance, the administration distributed bite-size digital pieces of content, everything from an interactive seating chart of the first lady's box to a behind-the-scenes video of how the President and his team put the speech together. The day after the address, Vice President Joe Biden continued the discussion with a live Twitter chat.
Reynolds says the White House has done a good job of using different social media channels to reach different people, particularly around events such as the State of the Union, which haven't traditionally generated much interest.
“In using these methods, what President Obama has done very well is communicate with people who might not be engaged in the political process and help them understand what issues matter,” she explains.
Parties and politicians are also monitoring the competition in real time, allowing them to correct, refute, or attack what is being said. Armed with video cameras, “trackers” follow opposing candidates to public events and record their every word and gesture. That footage is transmitted back to campaign headquarters, where sound bites that might position the opposing candidate in a negative or unflattering light can also be posted on YouTube or used in an attack ad.
That is why congressional Republicans are reportedly worried about GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney's propensity for making verbal missteps, such as telling CNN, “I am not concerned about the very poor” after his win in the Florida primary on January 31. With the technology that exists today and the ability to almost instantly replay a clip seconds after it happens, there's an entirely new definition to the term “rapid response,” says Gehrke. “If a candidate makes a mistake at the diner in the morning, he or she will be asked about it at the hamburger stand at lunch.”
Social media necessitates candidates being briefed seemingly minute by minute. Indeed, Michael Bassik, MD and US digital practice chair at Burson-Marsteller, has seen an increasing use of social media to help prepare candidates on the campaign trail.
“Beyond using social media as a communications tool, it is also being used more to inform campaign strategy on a more micro level,” he says. “Before a candidate speaks at an event, his or her teams can sweep Twitter, find out who has said they might attend, and even what questions they might ask.”
Bassik says such information can also help inform speechwriting and how a candidate interacts with media. “Social media can help decipher the potential mood of a room and help campaign operations learn more about a particular constituency and set of voters,” he notes.
Now that even the smallest speech can be broadcast, tweeted, and commented on, it is clear that social media has raised the stakes. Just as in the corporate world, that has demanded a relatively new skill set in which communications pros need to be digitally savvy and social media staffers need to be communications savvy.
“After a debate, your spin and reaction used to happen in a room where you'd have 10 or 15 minutes to pull your thoughts together,” says Scott Goodstein, president and founder of Revolution Messaging. “Now reaction is in almost real time, the seconds and minutes as the debate is happening. That is a huge responsibility, which is why you need someone who can think on their feet.”
In addition, with the advent of Twitter, writing well has become even more important.
“What happens during these debates and on the campaign trail is that tweets are picked up by bloggers and the mainstream media and become part of a news story,” he explains. “Political communications has become about the written word and not the verbal spin, which are two different skill sets.”
Without revealing staff numbers, Spicer says the Republican National Committee looks for two kinds of skill sets for the party's social media team.
“We have people who do the day-to-day stuff on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, work with bloggers, and help to develop online communities,” he says. “We also have the folks who look at social media from a bigger picture, in terms of how what we're doing plays into our overall messaging.”
“At the end of the day, whether you're talking about social or traditional media, you must be able to ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing what I am going to do?' It isn't just a question about whether or not you can send 100 tweets or post something on Facebook,” adds Spicer.
The battle is just beginning
Agency executives tell PRWeek Obama's digital-savvy administration will be tested on the social media front by the GOP this year because of their challenger status and the lessons they've gleaned from a long primary cycle.
Still, the Obama administration was first to confirm its fundraising activity will include the use of Square, new technology that allows campaign staff to take financial donations at rallies and other events through Android devices, iPhones, or iPads.
“There's a huge potential here to turn your volunteer and supporter base into a grassroots fundraising army,” says H+K's Hendler. “Now, anyone with an iOS device and an inexpensive credit card reader from Square can accept donations on behalf of the campaign.”
Still, Spicer says while the Republican National Committee is exploring new ways of fundraising, innovations such as Square are in their infancy, a sentiment echoed by many agency executives.
But what is clear from the adoption of Square is that every part of the presidential campaign, from fundraising to field operations to marketing communications, will look to use social media and new technology to gain an advantage. And with Election Day just seven months away, the battle for social media supremacy is just getting started.