Saturday, June 09, 2007

Politics 2.0

With presidential hopefuls from both Democratic and Republican parties appearing in debates this week, one could be forgiven for thinking that the election is this fall – rather than a year later, on November 4, 2008. That every campaign cycle seems to be starting earlier and earlier may be unwelcome news to most, although I hazard a guess that a good many of my fellow PRSA colleagues are watching the presidential campaign with interest.

It was during the last presidential election that Howard Dean first demonstrated the power of the web for political campaigns. In the few years since, every major candidate has launched websites and taken advantage of Youtube, online communities and social networking (e.g. MySpace and Facebook), Wiki’s and other means to share information and raise funds. Digital media is reshaping how campaigns communicate with voters, supporters and volunteers, and has made possible both a wider reach of message and, concurrently, more targeted communication to specific communities and interest groups. There’s also opportunity for enhanced interaction and informal dialog – if you want John Edward’s mother’s “secret” pecan pie recipe you can get it by donating $6.10 online.

This is of more than passing interest since campaign staff face the same uncertainties and dilemmas that we, as PR practitioners, face in understanding the new age of digital media: what is it, what does it mean, where is it going, and (most importantly) how can we use it to maximum effect? Online publications, podcasts, RSS feeds, Youtube, social networking, blogs (like this one!) … each is an important and expanding way that people are getting information, interacting, and even forming interest groups and communities.

But there’s a cautionary side to the digital age. Great examples are last year’s re-election defeat of Senator Conrad Burns (D-MT) and Senator George Allen (R-VA), both due at least in part to widely-viewed Youtube videos. (As you’ll recall, the Burns posting showed him asleep during a farm bill hearing; the Allen posting showed him using the term “Macaca”.) At the time, I remember being surprised to learn that these were not just random examples of video footage getting posted onto the web: in both cases it was either an activist or staff member of the opposing campaign who had been tracking the candidate and shooting video in the hope of capturing just such footage. We’re beginning to learn what it means to live in an age when almost anyone anywhere can make a videotape and instantly make it available to viewers around the world (something I can do with my smart phone), and how to monitor and prepare to respond quickly when bad news hits.

Given the importance of image and messaging to political campaigns, the 2008 election provides a marvelous fishbowl to watch how the candidates and their campaign staff applying new media, both proactively and defensively. So, from a certain standpoint, I’m actually glad that the campaign has begun already – it gives us more time to watch and learn how these master communicators and their skilled teams avoid the pitfalls and mine the opportunities presented by digital media – or not.