Blogging and campaigning: the more things change…

As a moderately inactive Liberal Democrat blogger, I read Lynne Featherstone’s piece on ‘are we making the most of blogging?’ with some interest. Her key point was to compare blogging in our party (largely local, anecdotal, and inward-looking), with political blogging in the US (largely campaigning and outward-looking):

What we seem to be mostly missing are those combative, outward looking souls who spot a story and want to help spread or extend the message or the point or the attack.

Or in other words where are the campaigning bloggers? Where are the people who create a story, link up the stories others have sparked, get the traffic moving to a petition site, and mobilise action on and off the web?

I think there are a number of answers to that question.

The first is that the situation in politics is rarely as bad or as good as it appears to be on the surface. Our bloggers do campaign, and the state of blogging in the US is no campaigning nirvana. Like US television we largely get to read the best, or more usually reports on the best, not experience the long tail of low-impact material that we see more of here, largely because we’re looking for it and indexing it on Lib Dem Blogs.

The second is that blogging is a form of journalism, and campaigning journalism has always been a minority pursuit, or rather one that is best done occasionally rather than all the time. Perpetual invitations to give a damn about some perceived slight or injustice can be hectoring rather than engaging. The Independent for example, produces worthy but dull shock-horror front pages every day of the week and is one of the least read national newspapers. You’re more likely to overhear a friend or colleague discuss the latest celebrity gossip in the Sun or Hello than the Independent issue of the day. Guido Fawkes made much this point in his response to Lynne’s original piece.

But people should care, you might rage. Well maybe. But the kind of campaigns that work well by push communications like face to face engagement on doorsteps or leaflets are not necessarily going to play with pull-media like blogs that people seek of their own accord. With a petition shoved in your face you might well agree you’d like to Save the local Post Office, would you actively seek to read about it though?

A good blog contribution to that campaign would be a personal story about someone whose life has actually been materially harmed by their local Post Office closure, or made materially better as a result of access. Successful blogs can add human interest, even to a 30-year old campaign about failing shops very few internet-users frequent often. This isn’t new though; the best leaflets make campaigns real through vox-pops and personal stories.

Third, one reason why many political bloggers may hold back from the kind of genuinely interesting campaigning journalism that stands a chance of being forwarded about, is that many are wannabe politicians not wannabe journalists. Writing hard-hitting, engaging copy is not risk free, unless you want to a columnist. If Boris Johnson doesn’t become Mayor of London on May 1st, his many ‘amusing’ but politically ill-judged contributions to the press, may well be cited as responsible.

Prospective Parliamentary Candidates further tend to avoid being the source of assaults on their opponents, for the very reason that it is so obviously self-serving that it deadens the impact of what might be a very legitimate point. Better for them, if it comes from the local paper or non-partisan blog*, so that they can then reference it as objective.

Less directly ‘attack’, fair or not, can make you appear aggressive rather than caring. If you make a blunder with your blog, you can reap the whirlwind for a very long time due to the joy of Google and media archives. Jody Dunn may have won the Hartlepool by-election had her blog not gifted Labour an attack message when an off-hand reference to drunken locals was manipulated into a multi-media assault on her judgement.

Similarly where politics are concerned, being an echo-chamber for the serene wisdom of your own side is unlikely to attract much comment or reference. Lib Dem says Lib Dems are right is not a story. The most referenced Liberal Democrat articles tend to be the ones where the author has made a dig at their own party… but this is not a recommendation… unless again you want to be more a journalist than a candidate or campaigner.

Finally, one things blogs can do that mainstream media finds more difficult is provide real-time comment and response. That should be useful in a campaign – instant answers to an inquiring public – only it is unusual that blog comments really work in this way. Most come from the already decided, or other bloggers, and few people read beyond the first few before switching off. You’re better off phone-canvassing than reading blog comments if you want to get a sense of what the public really think about an issue and respond to their concerns.

In summary, blogging has a role to play in campaigns, by providing human interest, by linking to campaign sites that inspire action and by acting as a repository of information about you and your opponents, but don’t expect a revolution. The big blogs, like big media, will always have most impact, and most of those are interesting precisely because they’re good journalism not political campaigns.

The long tail also matters but a reference on Iain Dale, Lib Dem Voice or Guido Fawkes is likely to be more impactful than a 100 references across blogs like my own. If I want to fly an important story I’ll send it to some of the leading bloggers as media, rather than assume it gets picked up by chance.

Where then are we going right? Stephen Tall’s original approach of providing a blog, a personal website and campaigns linked to both is ,I think, a useful model for candidates and elected officials. Stephen’s key asset though is the quality and style of his writing, not the techno-wizardry. James Graham I think is the party’s best journalist, and as a result, the many campaigns he runs get a higher profile. Lynne’s own blog I think is more like that of a lifestyle columnist, very popular I suspect with a quite different audience to James. And the list could go on.

For a blog then to be useful for future campaigning it should simply seek to engage an audience, and occasionally ask them to change something, much like a community newsletter really. If you want to ensure a campaign gets legs from one of your blog posts you should email other bloggers who might be interested, much as you would target press releases on the mainstream media…

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

*I should note that this is not an invitation to set up fake blogs that purport to be objective when they are in fact anything but. The marginal benefit you might reap from the tiny handful of people genuinely convinced by a supposed neutral gradually being switched on by your party, is as nothing compared to the election-losing or reputation-destroying storm that would be unleashed should the deception be uncovered. Take note Grant Shapps.

Andy Mayer blogs is a Liberal Democrat in Southwark and blogs at andymayer.blogspot.com

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