Worth a second outing: Blogging – what’s in it for political parties?

Welcome to a series where old posts are revived for a second outing for reasons such as their subject has become topical again, they have aged well but were first posted when the site’s readership was only a tenth or less of what it is currently or they got published and the site crashed, hiding the finest words of wisdom behind an incomprehensible error message. Today’s is a piece I wrote in 2007 for Iain Dale’s annual blogging guide. Three years and one general election on, my views on the matter are much the same – and in particular the usefulness of the book/newspaper analogy. What has aged less well are the examples I used of single-issue campaign websites, which have now closed, and the state of Labour blogging has changed markedly in the last three years.

Compare a newspaper publisher with a book publisher. Newspaper publishers don’t need to let you know when the next edition of their paper comes out. Whether it’s a daily or a weekly newspaper, you know when the next edition is out. You don’t have to see an advert, receive a mailshot or pass a display in a shop window to know when there’s a new copy of The News of the World or The Observer out.

But it’s a quite different matter with books. Minor exceptions such as Christmas Annuals aside, publishers have to put huge efforts into telling people when a new book by their favourite author is out. You can’t count on people going to their local shop on a Tuesday and knowing that a new book will be out in the way that you can with a newspaper.

To post or not to post?That, at heart, is the difference between a blog and a website. There are (or rather used to be) various technical differences between the two, but they have become fairly blurred with many features of one now appearing on the other. RSS feeds? Photo galleries? Email sign ups? Archive pages? They all now appear as often on blogs as on websites. At heart though there is still a difference. It is an instinctive one which comes from the diary structure at the heart of blogging. The essence of having a chronologically-ordered set of posts which is regularly updated is that readers are far more willing to come back of their own volition to see the latest instalments than with a traditional website.

Of course there are exceptions to this – such as a sports news website where readers know there will (or should) be interesting new information as each sporting fixture concludes – but if you want to build up an ongoing stream of communication with readers who come back again and again, then a blogging approach is usually far more fruitful than a website. Therefore, for a political party looking to create a dialogue with voters, supporters or members, blogging has much to commend it.

It is not the only benefit of blogging though, as is reflected by the four-pronged approach the Liberal Democrats have taken to getting the best out of blogging.

The first prong is made up of those websites that happen to use blogging software under the hood. A good example of this is www.nhssos.com [now closed]– a normal website in purpose and functionality, but uses the WordPress blogging platform simply because it is such a powerful and cheap way of putting something together even when that something is more a traditional website than a blog.

The second is having a set of “official” and “central” party blogs for on-going issues and campaigns, such as www.corruptionisacrime.com and www.homeofficewatch.com [also both now defunct]. Both are for areas where there is a steady flow of new stories as time marches on, and so a blog-like approach works best, presenting information chronologically and avoiding the need to massively rewrite existing content as new information comes to light in the way that a static website might require.

The third prong is the encouragement given to Liberal Democrats who hold public elected office to blog, through a mix of training, provision of tools, exhortation and finger crossing. Around 10% of Liberal Democrat MPs blog at the moment with, to the best of my knowledge, them all personally writing their pieces – a very important condition for a successful politician’s blog.

Of course different MPs will make different judgements about the best use of their time, but overall the size of this blogging group gives a strong Liberal Democrat online presence when there are contentious issues in the air and people looking for political commentary online. But many of the most successful blogs are those by councillors (such as www.oxfordliberal.blogspot.com [Stephen Tall’s blog back when he was a local councillor] and www.jonathanwallace.blogspot.com), which often build up local audiences that are of a size where influencing (local) election results fairly directly becomes a reality.

The fourth prong is encouraging “unofficial” blogs by party members, such as through the “Liberal Democrat Blog of the Year” award. Liberal Democrat Voice (www.libdemvoice.org) – where I am one of the regular posters – is a good example of the benefits unofficial blogs can bring parties. By being unofficial the site can cover more controversial and interesting topics than an “official” site, but by having a regular input of “official” information it can be more than simply the collection of one person’s gossip and views whilst (from the party’s point of view) reaching a wider and more diverse audience than an official site might.

Unofficial blogs are not always met with open arms and enthusiasm, and doubtless Conservative Home (www.conservativehome.blogs.com) has caused more than a few sighs of exasperation from Conservative Party officials at its very open approach to negative stories and discussing criticisms of the party with headlines such as, “Is the Conservative Party in ‘a very grave crisis’?” and pieces such as that from Mark Field MP baldy stating, “I believe that our by-election campaign in Ealing Southall may have done lasting damage to the Party”.

Somewhat surprisingly, given it is the party of government and therefore – you would have thought – intrinsically of more interest than other parties – the Labour blogosphere is relatively small and under-developed. Sites such as www.labourhome.org are a great source of news and gossip on particular niches such as Labour Parliamentary selections but overall there is relatively little substantive news or significant gossip to be picked up from Labour sites.

For those (like myself) who wish to help get “official” party information out more widely, these unofficial sites bring the advantage that, when done well, their liveliness and even controversy-seeking means they get audiences that straightforward official channels of communication do not.

That wider interaction with online communities also generates a fair degree of brickbats and negative comments, but there are essentially two attitudes to take towards criticism. You can wish it weren’t there, ignore it and hope it goes away – or you can welcome it being flushed out into the open for the opportunity that gives to confront, explain and persuade.

By being more personal and more interactive that a website, blogging is well suited to helping spread those views and change minds; and that, in the end, is a large part of what political campaigning is about.

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