INFLUENCER: Graham Nolan, CKSK's Head of Strategy, explores how social media is changing the political landscape
Leonardo Da Vinci created many brilliant things - the Mona Lisa, the idea for scuba diving gear and blueprints for the world’s first helicopter 500 years before it was invented. He is also responsible for saying “Where there is shouting, there is no true knowledge” - an expression that political campaign strategists would do well to heed in 2016 - year of the US elections, Brexit referendum and Irish General election Part 1. I say Part 1 because it's gone down so badly that we’re already pretty much guaranteed a second election before the year is out.
President Obama is widely accredited with running the first successful “Social Media Election” in 2008, turning a media channel only four years old into a massive donation collection machine in the process. This single event sent party political strategists into meltdown around the world and experts were dispatched to Washington to learn the tricks of this new and emerging media craft to replicate. Overnight, our public representatives opened Twitter accounts, learned what a Facebook emoji meant and faked they knew what a Reddit AMA was. And some of them became quite good at it, using social media to overcome complex election communication problems.
The Tories in the UK used social successfully to target marginal seat constituencies in the 2015 General Election; good use of the precision targeting capabilities of the medium. Rather than a blanket one size fits all content approach, they were able to prioritise content in each region against the voter priorities identified in local polling. Labour set out its stall to make Ed Miliband a YouTube star for the voting generation, sitting him down beside Russell Brand in front of a camera and pumping the video content on Youtube and Facebook. And the Liberal Democrats social media win was ultimately reserved until their complete defeat was confirmed with the handle @paddys_hat opened seconds after Ashdown had confirmed he would eat his hat if the exit polls turned out to be true. They were right and the handle today still has over 9,000 followers.
For all of the noise, complex content plans and push posting, one of the biggest strengths of social media is being ignored - the ability to listen. In the recent Irish general election campaign, the incumbent government slogan of “Keep The Recovery Going” was meant to capture a spirit of optimism as Ireland exits the recession of the last decade and begins to think how to manage fiscal growth again. But it backfired in a big way, none more so than on social media. The slogan became the target for an electorate broken by austerity and they used social channels to send back their response - “What Recovery?”. Realising the misjudgement in the public sentiment, two days before the election vote the Irish Prime Minster posted social content about a lighthouse and how his government wanted to bring the light back into every home in the country. Overnight, 900 comments were posted in reply on Facebook. Unlike the typical response to political posts which normally range from expletives to childish and immature comments, these responses were different. Story after story was posted in clear and plain language explaining to the Prime Minister how the light had already gone out in homes around the country because of austerity measures. Stories of emigration, job loss, house evictions and homelessness were told in heart breaking authentic language.
Social media hasn’t changed how we vote, but it changes the dynamic for how we relate to our voters. The mistake political parties are making is to approach social media as the next advertising channel. It's not that simple. In fact its biggest strength is not the ability to shout loudest, it's the ability to listen, learn and understand. Politicos say that all politics is local, but on social media it's more than that, it's deeply personal and we would do well to learn from this before we plan to pump political money into shouting louder than anyone else.
Listening on social media can help us understand the motivations behind voter migration to Donald Trump. Help us see how People Politik candidates like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are making real connections and take a temperature for the electorate before we create over confident campaign slogans.
I tell you who has done it right though. President Frank Underwood. A man who has never had to go to the Electorate for Presidential office and owner of the finest political campaign hashtag ever.
Graham Nolan is CKSK's Head of Strategy