At one end of the spectrum stands US president Barack Obama, a gleaming example of how savvy use of social media can lead to political victory. At the other end we find the ‘smeargate’ scandal, an ill-conceived plot by Labour operatives Derek Draper and Damian McBride to use a new website to denigrate political rivals.
Somewhere in between the two extremes, the UK’s three main political parties are becoming increasingly fervent disciples of the power of social media – with varying degrees of success.
Jeremy Hunt, Conservative Party shadow secretary for culture, media and sport, and the public face of the Tories’ digital strategy, says: ‘Social media provide a fantastic outlet for us to build a new kind of relationship with voters.’
The Conservatives, under head of new media Rishi Saha, have attracted the most plaudits for social media savvy so far. Hunt says: ‘These platforms provide a great way for people to interact, chat and debate with us or each other. Social media also offer us a chance to bypass traditional broadcasters with our own direct message for people.’
The Tories are not alone in their zeal for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats also boast increasingly sophisticated digital platforms, replete with tools to encourage interaction and mobilise supporters.
Dan Thain, senior strategist at Blue State Digital, the agency that oversaw Obama’s digital campaign, says: ‘The goal of social media is not to develop the funkiest online component; it is to identify ways in which new media can help the party win votes, thereby winning elections.’
PRWeek has assembled a panel of political and digital comms experts (right) to run the rule over each party’s social media performance, which could be a strong indicator of their election prospects. Read on for their definitive mid-year report cards.
The Labour Party
Summary of approach
Focused on using social media to formulate policy, run campaigns and raise funds.
Sue MacMillan heads the party’s digital efforts, while Mark Flanagan is considered the brains behind new media at Downing Street. Other key players include Alex Hilton, the man behind LabourHome, along with MP Tom Harris. Tom Watson, formerly minister for digital engagement, who resigned two weeks ago, was also a key contributor. Alastair Campbell and John Prescott also impress. Industry support comes from blogger Mark Hanson and Tangent Labs director Greg Jackson.
Gordon Brown’s rather unfortunate forays on to YouTube have been mercilessly lampooned. Regardless, Flanagan has developed a raft of solid offerings for his leader, including the most active Twitter feed. An impressive Downing Street web platform, meanwhile, houses an e-petitions component that is hailed by Dan Thain as the ‘standout’ use of social media.
The party’s ‘virtual phonebank’ draws plaudits, while a focus on dispersing tools makes ‘existing supporters more effective’, says Rob Blackie. Daljit Bhurji, meanwhile, bemoans ‘a massive void of digital expertise’, adding that a command and control mentality hampers efforts.
Mixed – one in four Labour MPs do not have a website, let alone a blog. Harris and Watson are exceptional bloggers, but the real star is Prescott, who has developed a hard-hitting campaign site, GoFourth.
Online community Labourspace provides a platform for supporters to share ideas with Ed Miliband, but attention has been dominated by LabourList – thanks to the infamous efforts of its former editor Derek Draper. Prescott’s efforts, in tandem with Campbell, at GoFourth also stand out. Meanwhile, Hilton’s LabourHome offers a useful forum for activists to discuss policy, says Greg Jackson.
Making up ground. Thinking reflects the party’s technocratic culture, but it has made a serious effort to understand and deploy social media more effectively. The dissemination of tools and widgets is a good example of this. But it lacks solid strategy to attract undecided voters.
Next steps to take
Open up more genuine dialogue with people. Improve outreach to undecided voters. Continue to develop the blogosphere, and get more women involved.
The Conservative Party
Summary of approach
Splashy efforts have sparked coverage in the mainstream media and position the Tories as the party that ‘gets’ social media.
Rishi Saha leads the party’s six-strong digital team, supported by Craig Elder. Shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt is the public face of its new media efforts, with important contributions from Boris Johnson and MPs such as John Redwood and Nadine Dorries. Tim Montgomerie heads grassroots website ConservativeHome, while Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes are highly influential voices.
‘David Cameron’s embrace of social media has been the most wholehearted and successful of any party leader,’ says Daljit Bhurji. While Webcameron, Cameron’s online video channel, has fizzled somewhat – now existing as a YouTube channel featuring a range of Conservative figures – Cameron’s command of social media is largely effortless.
A standout team uses social media to strong effect, via such tools as a video wall and the Blue Blog. The ‘donate your status’ Facebook app for the recent European elections, and savvy use of Google Adwords, are other excellent initiatives. Party chairman Eric Pickles’ regular ‘War Room Briefing’ video is oddly compelling.
Dorries is the most influential blogger, alongside Redwood.
Streets ahead. ConservativeHome is a ‘huge asset’, says Rob Blackie, and provides a level of candour that no other grassroots site can match. Influential blogs by Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes are heavily read ‘in a way that no Lib Dem or Labour blog is’, says Blackie.
An obvious flair for social media, coupled with evident resources, has resulted in an impressive offering. Doubts about overall strategy are compensated for by a very vibrant blogosphere that, in turn, influences the mainstream media disproportionately. The party itself is focused more on floating voters, at the expense of motivating the base. ‘There is a danger that overconfidence could slow the pace of future progress,’ cautions Bhurji.
Next steps to take
The Tories understand their strategy’s focus on floating voters must evolve into better mobilisation of the party’s core supporters. They must work out how to marry a new media strategy with an activist base that is relatively old. They may also start pondering what they will do with ConservativeHome if they take power within the next year.
The Liberal Democrats
Summary of approach
Mainly oriented towards giving tools to existing supporters to spread the word.
The departure of former digital supremo Mark Pack to Mandate has left a void the party is trying to fill. MP and blogger Lynne Featherstone leads the newly formed technology board that features Pack, along with former Google executive David Angell. MP Steve Webb has a strong digital presence. Industry support comes from Blue Rubicon digital chief Rob Blackie.
Nick Clegg was an early proponent of social media through his leadership campaign, but recent efforts have failed to inspire. His decision to convene a technology board to oversee digital may signal an improvement.
Uninspiring design remains an issue, while some excellent tools – such as Flocktogether – are poorly integrated. ‘In need of some strong guidance,’ says Rich Benson. Daljit Bhurji, meanwhile, believes the Justice for Gurkhas campaign ‘could have been used to increase media resonance for the Lib Dems’, by more imaginatively employing digital media.
Perhaps the best single online campaigner of any party is Webb, while Featherstone is an impressive blogger. ‘Not turning Vince Cable into an online asset during the credit crunch has been a huge missed opportunity,’ notes Bhurji. ‘A dedicated blog from him would have given Robert Peston a run for his money.’
Lib Dem Voice does manage to make life difficult for the central party on occasion. Otherwise, most activity is focused locally, via grassroots efforts such as Oval News.
Outside contenders. Good tools for local activists are let down by terrible design and weak integration. Bloggers fare better, especially at a local level, and overall understanding of social media is impressive. Pack’s departure leaves some very big shoes to fill.
Next steps to take
Although funding remains a critical issue, Pack must be replaced. The decision to split his job into three is structurally sound but may result in less intellectual vision. The party also has to pay more attention to the basics of functionality and design, and it needs to integrate its tools better. Meanwhile, a focus on local activism should not obscure a continuing requirement to engage with the general public better. Simply put, the Lib Dems need to be more tenacious and adventurous online.
Managing director, Diffusion
Blue State Digital
Labour blogger and new media strategist
Head of research, Blue Rubicon
Director of planning, Hill & Knowlton
Head of social media, Launch Group
Head of new media, Conservative
Director, Tangent Labs
Performance metrics were sourced from Diffusion PR and Social Media Affairs