Tom Brake MP writes… Romney’s bought the latest gadget, but he’s forgotten to read the manual

Romney’s bought the latest gadget, but he’s forgotten to read the manual.When Obama stormed to the Presidency he did so in glorious Technicolor while his opponent was still campaigning in black and white (or at least fifty shades of grey). In contrast, Obama campaigned with panache and proved what can be achieved by harnessing the power of social media.

His victory, for me, was a Kennedy/Nixon moment – one campaign looked modern and dynamic, the other looked tired, sweaty and frankly a bit outdated. The result was rather predictable in the end. Obama triumph. Slam dunk.

But if Obama’s victory four years ago was a triumph for social media campaigning and fundraising, then the next election in the US will truly take it to another level, largely because the way the candidates are choosing to engage with their audiences thus far couldn’t be more different.

Obama and Romney have both thrown themselves into social media with a vengeance this time around. In essence, the Republicans have finally joined the party and that makes it a whole lot more exciting for campaign geeks, even on the other side of the pond.

Looking at statistics and analysis emerging from the Pew Research Center in US, there is a lot Lib Dems can learn from the way in which the two candidates are approaching social media this time around and how they are already using it to complement traditional campaign methods.

The Republicans are fumbling with social media. But like most men, Romney has bought the latest gadget, but forgotten to read the instruction manual. We’ve all been there, but it’s usually when buying a hand whisk or a new mobile phone, not when launching a multi-million dollar e-campaign for President.

Having said that they are doing some interesting things online, but they appear to simply being going through the motions of having a presence online rather than crafting a clear campaign strategy that can deliver tangible results.

The Republicans chose to make their announcement of the Romney-Ryan ticket via the ‘Romney campaign app’, although that move seems a bit old hat these days in truth. It signalled that they are taking the net seriously, but caused none of the stir that similar moves by Obama last time around caused. Why? Because to tech journalists, doing something new and innovative is what counts. You don’t win nearly as many plaudits for being the second person to step on the moon.

Despite not quite hitting the mark, the direction of travel is clear. Romney’s team want to close the digital gap and bridge the great divide that was created when Obama monopolised social media at the last presidential election.

The divergence of the two approaches is best illustrated on Twitter.

Romney tweets, but not in an active manner. He rarely asks questions of his followers. He rarely seeks their input. In effect he’s putting out press releases in the form of tweets. There is little to latch on to and little effort to include his audience as active participants in the discussion. He rarely retweets anything except his own son’s tweets!

Obama is at the other end of the spectrum completely. His whole strategy is about engagement and mobilisation. It’s about having a conversation, rather than open warfare campaigning. The Obama campaign has even pushed the envelope by localising its digital messaging significantly, adding state-by-state content pages filled with local information. As man analysis have already noted, it has also largely eliminated a role for the mainstream press.

It’s a more labour intensive approach. But he reaps the rewards. Retweet rates for Obama are through the roof, whereas for Romney they are nailed squarely to the floor. Obama gives his content the best possible chance of being relevant to the audience and he invites them to participate actively.

Pew’s analysis notes that, “Obama’s digital content also engendered more response from the public-twice the number of shares, views and comments of his posts”. In essence, he’s having an active two-way conversation with his supporters. Romney isn’t. Mitt’s come to the party, but he’s alone in the corner, nursing an alcohol-free rum and coke, rather than working the room.

And social media is all about working the room. There is no point being online and hoping your audience comes to you. I tried that years ago and it didn’t work. I had a website, filled it with content, and waited for them to come to me. I now call it the ‘Field of Dreams’ approach for obvious reasons: if you build it they will come.

Well, they won’t. I learnt my lesson. You can spruce up the site and make it swanky, but unless you engage with your audience where the real conversation is going on, you might as well not bother.

What does that mean in practice?

Six or seven years ago if I met with a local train company in my capacity as the MP, I’d put up a press release on my website. Few people read it and whether the message even made it through to my audience depended largely on whether the local press picked it up. It then depended on whether my constituents, who are drawn from pretty broad demographics, even bothered with the local rag.

Today, my approach to social media is completely different and the whole story starts much earlier. If people raise concerns about rail issues with me online or in person, I’ll seek a meeting with the rail company. Once the meeting is confirmed, I’ll let those individuals and all my followers/friends know that I’ve secured a meeting. I’ll then ask them what issues they’d like me to raise – what questions do they want answers to?

I’ll meet with the rail company with those questions to hand and make sure I get the answers I need and my constituents want. I’ll then continue the narrative on social media by reporting back on my meeting and delivering the response from the rail company to those specific questions direct to my constituents.

It’s about closing the circle and illustrating to constituents that MPs and candidates really do take their concerns seriously and act upon them. In fact many of my most successful campaigns have been spawned from the level of contact and interest I have witnessed from my constituents online.

When hundreds of young constituents contacted me because their regular night bus was earmarked for the scrap heap, I took action and harnessed their energy online to run an effective campaign which grew to reach thousands of young people locally. Anyone who tells you that young people don’t care about anything these days should quite frankly be ashamed of themselves. It’s about tapping into their potential and engaging with them in a medium they can relate to. It’s not to young people to come to their MPs, it’s up to us MPs to go to them and ask them what they want from us.

Our candidates may not have Obama’s swagger, wardrobe or jump shot, but his style on social media fits perfectly with the way in which we Lib Dems should be engaging with people online. We’re a party that knocks on doors and asks questions of our constituents. We tailor our messages to our audience. We actively engage rather than sit back and fire messages from behind the trenches. And that’s why every candidate should be on social media and should carry the same Lib Dem ethos with them online that they use elsewhere in their campaigns.

Alas that is some way off. In the Lib Dems we’re still at the stage of asking our candidates whether they are on social media. What we should be asking them is how they are on social media? It’s the Romney vs Obama approach. Romney and Obama are both on broadly the same social networks, but Obama is the only one truly using it.

* Tom Brake is Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington, and Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

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One Comment

  • Paul Reynolds 13th Sep '12 - 4:33pm

    A very interesting and useful, and detailed, article. I hope local parties take heed. No doubt the Obama and Rimney campaigns will take note too.

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