The Massage is the Medium by Derek Wyatt
It’s hard to remember when serious politics was not part of the entertainment business.
Since 1992, when BSB started Sky News, the first UK 24 hour news channel on a shoestring, our political leaders, such as they are, have had to respond to a different agenda not always set by themselves. Sky has been followed by a dozen more 24 hour news channels including France 24 (in English), Press TV (Iranian sponsored and yes again in English) and Al Jazeera (in English and Arabic).
As about the same time all these channels hit our air waves they were met full on with the rise of an “alternative News” concept in the form of the internet. You Tube was innovative from the outset but really only developed once video streaming had enough band width. The problem was then was how would politicians influence another 24/7 platform over which they have no control?
In 2007, I decided to find out.
I spent Easter in Paris with the three Presidential candidates’ internet teams – Nicolas Sarkozy, Segolene Royal and Francois Bayrou. Sarkozy’s team was holed up in the west end of Paris and his headquarters could have been mistaken for a set from a Busby Berkeley musical. Royale’s was also “tres chic” but in the equivalent of a Mayfair flat whilst poor Bayrou was out in the sticks a bit in a refurbished garage.
Sarkozy had hired two smart French students studying in America who were au fait with how the internet was moving. They quickly established a great web site which had millions of hits. Every time he spoke in public to huge numbers (streamed live) there were cut-away interviews on his site to those who had been (not always supporters) to hear him. These were, or felt, authentic and the French came to the site in larger and larger numbers. Sarkozy had quickly found the political sweet spot of the internet.
Extraordinarily, Royal had also recruited a French student studying in America. The French socialist party’s organisation was a joke back then. Royal was always playing catch up compared to Sarkozy. So she could not afford live streaming.
Instead she offered bloggers (there were then more in France than any other country) free interviews. Imagine being a blogger in Scunthorpe or Sheppey and being offered an exclusive with the potential next President? That’s how it was. And the blogging community came forward in droves to interview her and carry her news. It was a brilliant concept.
Bloggers who were sympathetic to her were quickly joined to local socialist activists and or the local party. Very quickly she had established a national online socialist movement for change though it was not quite enough to carry her to the Elysee Palace losing by just over 2 million votes. It would have been much more had she not had an internet element to her campaign.
After Paris, I flew to Washington, DC; there I met one of the internet team supporting Hillary Clinton and then a member of the communication staff supporting John McCain, a Republican candidate who later won his party’s nomination.
Hillary had already used her own web site to announce her candidature and it was clear her team was savvy, if slightly over confident, but on the ball. They were harvesting millions and millions of email addresses (but interestingly hardly any cell numbers for text). McCain, from an older generation (he was then 70) had a passable web site but his team used it as an announcement board not as a fora for debate, gathering volunteers or blogging. This was a serious error but his team appeared indifferent.
I then flew to Chicago, to Barack Obama’s headquarters. His team had hired a disused skyscraper close to down town. As I came out of the lift, there was the man himself about to step in. I introduced myself. He stepped back out and we stood chatting for ten minutes. It was exhilarating to have met the man I thought would become the first black President of America.
The Obama HQ was wall to wall computers. His campaign was being run by staff from Blue State Digital (which Martin Sorrell’s WPP duly bought) including David Plouffe (his The Audacity to Win is a life-changer). Obama’s campaign had the internet at its centre. He and his team raised over $1 billion and went on to win the 2008 Presidential campaign.
In 2012, concentrating just on the marginal US states, and using street by street hook ups by culling different data grabs, Obama’s team finessed their 2007-8 campaign and against most commentators opinions, both here and in America, save Nate Silver (read his The Signal and The Noise), came home with ease. This time round Plouffe had graduated to become the Campaign Manager for Obama.
Neither of the two applicants to become Prime Minister in four weeks time launched their campaigns using their respective web sites. Neither of them are using them as Obama did. Perhaps, this is because though we treat our prime ministers more like presidents they are in fact just candidates to become MPs. Or more likely we are not allowed to raise funding in this way and maybe web sites have been overtaken by Instagram, facebook and linked-in.
Cameron sadly, has studiously refused even to debate head to heads with Miliband on television. The Tories are using a national campaign which as I write seems to change almost daily according to their private polling. Their message is simple and repeated often. Only they can be trusted with the economy and they deserve the chance to finish off the work they began in 2010. It echoes Bill Clinton’s “The Economy, Stupid” slogan from his successful campaign of 1992.
Labour has a different campaign all together. They hired David Plouffe and have embraced his methodology to concentrate on key marginals which he cut from just over 100 to 85. In these seats, candidates are using a combination of email and twitter accounts to reach new audiences. They are producing their own version of the news in 144 characters with attached photos and articles. Their messages are being supported by the national campaign. This shows the party to be more in touch with how we live our lives. Now their policies must match the messaging.
In the end though, as we all know, the winner will be the one the voter trusts the most. Given the lack of trust there is in the political class in Westminster this is why this election may see a lower turn out and no overall winner.
(For those interested in politics and messaging Derek recommends the following books The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan; The Revolution will not be Televised: Democracy, The Internet & The Overthrow of Everything by Joe Trippi; WE the media: Grassroots journalism by the people for the people by Dan Gilmour)