The new media communication strategies are disruptive to the old 20th century style campaign organization and communication strategies. The medium is the message, and like radio, the telephone and television before it, the internet has radically altered who is electable. Before television, there was a dramatically different set of candidates who could win that didn’t have a chance once television emerged.
At first, campaigning on TV was viewed as a gimmick and was given to young staffers to experiment with. Over time, television asserted itself as the dominant form of political communication — remaking our nation’s politics in the process. If that progression sounds familiar, it’s because we’re reliving it today.
It’s about how the social web is rapidly becoming the default place where people spend their time and discuss issues that matter to them. It will be about how much society has integrated itself into it. Citizens are quickly becoming accustomed to being a fan of their congressman on Facebook, because it will soon become one of the main ways in which they communicate with him
New media leads voters to “expect more personalized, dynamic and interactive communications”, as Natch Greyer said of social media in the March 2011 US edition of Campaigns & Elections. What is more effective in creating a personal, dynamic and interactive relationship than face-to-face communications? The answer, of course, is nothing.
A step back from the hyper-focus on social media to view how technology has affected politics in the past will provide better context to this inquiry. The arrival of the printing press in the late medieval period led to leaps forward in literacy rates, the Enlightenment and rationalism. In turn, it allowed a new form of mass identity and organization hitherto impossible. The written word did not simply allow for mass society, but also detached the argument from the author, allowing a new discourse remote from emotional ties enabling great scientific discoveries.
In the American and French Revolutions, people discussed and countries tried to contend with the printing press along similar lines as we do today with the new media channels of FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs. Organizations learn they must adapt to the techniques rather than simply banning or ignoring them: the techniques were never the cause in the first place. Political change is fostered because of under-riding economic and political factors, not techniques.
Facebook may have facilitated the Arab uprising, but it was by no means the cause of it. The status quo focuses on the how things have worked in the past without keeping the focus on what they are doing. Campaigns can easily fall into old habits of how they did things, instead of focusing on what they want to accomplish. As Trippi pointed out, “really smart people, even the Obama guys, they get fat and lazy and they’re in charge and the conventional wisdom thing even seeps in for them.” And things are changing faster than they have ever done in the past.
Take the radio, for instance, which was commercially introduced in the early 1920s. Politically it was used originally by President Calvin Coolidge to deliver his State of the Union Address in 1923, but it was mastered with President Roosevelt’s fireside chats ten years later once it had reached over 50% adoption (US census). Originally, reports on radio were canned with little emotion, but with time techniques were adapted to bring a more human element to better connect with the audience. Roosevelt made a personal connection with people through his fireside chats as he gave the impression that he was compassionately talking to them in their living room.
During the 1950's and 1960's the telephone was increasingly used by candidate and activist campaigns to make and maintain in-person one-to-one contact with voters and supporters. Campaigns used the telephone to have intermittent conversations with voters, which was good. But the phone can not deliver the visual body language part of the message being communicated nor was it possible to establish a regular ongoing conversations.
By 1960, the new thing was television. In the historic 1960s televised debate, the more traditional Nixon approach won over radio listeners, while the physical charm and make-up of Kennedy won the TV audience. As the mediums connected with more senses, campaigns had to convey their message through voice tonality, changing the wording, correct arm movements and eye contact often requiring experts in the ins and outs of the new medium.
The assumption was that TV was more effective at connecting with an audience than radio; technology moved communication strategies and techniques forward, allowing candidates to connect at a level closer to that old in-person one-to-one contact. These one-to-many mass media tools do allow politicians and activists to connect to more people, but they do not allow for that old personal contact conversation. The best messages for mass media communication channels are those with mass appeal to broad segments of the population, not best to connect personally with each voter.
The gap between these two levels of connecting, the broad and the personal, is huge. Many in the public notice that general political messages are so similar as to make all the options ‘the same’, so why would it matter to not vote at all. In many ways, candidates appear the same because there are tried and true methods for reaching the broad audience. What we have in common is our fear of the unknown or losing what we have. Psychologists have shown we are risk averse. It is much easier to appeal to a broad audience with a negative message that emotionally connects with people. Our motivations are much more diverse.
Dr. Drew Weston’s book, "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation" posits the four main requirements in the development of a political message.
- Overarching all requirements is to deliver emotionally compelling principles through a narrative, while defining the other party. This is the high-level messaging strategy that appeals to the broad target audience; all other messages should tie back to this/these over-riding principle(s).
- At a close second is to encourage positive “gut-level feelings” to the candidate, while the opposite to the opponent.
- Thirdly, campaigns should “manage feelings toward the candidates’ characteristics” or the sort of judgments relating to leadership qualities, kindness, or trustworthiness.
- At a “distant fourth” a campaign should manage feelings toward policies and positions. Notice that each of these four goals contains an emotional attachment.
Through his research, Weston shows that humans rationalize our emotions leading us to adopt positions based on what we most associate or ‘like’. His findings echo former Prime Minister Kim Campbell’s dictate “elections are no place to talk about issues.” Particularly when dealing through a broad medium, the message must be tightly about the highest order, principle, focus of a campaign. The focus has been far too much on mass media in the last 60 years, but when it was much easier to control and remain on message – it seemed the preferable option.
In "Get out the vote: how to increase voter turnout," Yale University researchers Doctors Donald Green and Alan Gerber, present the compiled facts from the last 20 years. They found radio and TV raised turnout by 0.8% and 0.5% respectively, but were unable to prove their effectiveness in mobilizing a specific campaign’s supporters. They found a strong utility bias to real-life volunteers connecting with people in their own communities. Volunteer phoning would generate about one vote for every 38 contacts and door-to-door would generate one in 14. The ability to have personalized, dynamic and interactive communications increased the effectiveness of engagement.
Focusing on the what of campaigning, rather than the how; What is it that every campaign must do? The answer is that candidates must communicate to the public so people will be attracted to the campaign as supporters and donors, or at the very least vote for the candidate on election day. Albert Mehrabian identifies a mix of three critical elements need to effectively communicate any message: 55% body language, 38% tone of voice and 7% content of words. The model is illustrative of why radio is more effective at connecting with people than the printed word and why television is more effective than radio. When a medium lacks a component of the communications mix, it amplifies certain aspects of communication – like how words led to a more rational discourse in the 1800s, or how, with the advent of television the look of a candidate became more important than the words s/he spoke.
The Internet offers candidates and political activists the full range of communication elements - everything but the in-person handshake. YouTube videos offer the same visual power as television while spoken and printed message can be delivered with podcasts and blogs. Once attracted by the messaging delivered through videos, blogs and podcasts the Internet offers other social media sites (SMS) like FaceBook, Twitter and Google+, among many, to engage in conversation with supporters and voters. Finally, Internet offers solutions to better organization and connectivity with campaign volunteers to more agilely coordinate resources for phone or door canvassing and collect data in real-time.