Thursday, September 23, 2010

Will social media only come into its own in government when budgets run out?

The US Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich spoke this morning at Media140 #Ozpolitics on why President Obama used social media in such an innovative way during his election campaign.

Bleich said that it wasn't because President Obama particularly believed that social media was taking over from traditional media and it wasn't because his campaign team felt it would differentiate them from other Democratic candidates.

It was because they didn't have any choice.

Back in 2006 while Obama had enormous appeal as a Senator he didn't have the basics to win an election. No money, endorsements, name recognition or consultants.

He was running against Senator Hilary Clinton - who had been a household name for two decades, had a good funding machine, had locked up most of the big endorsements and had good consultants.

The core group of 'true believers' supporting Obama may have been passionate, committed and hardworking but they were underdogs. And, Bleich says, while Americans (and Australians) love an underdog, they normally stay under.

To compensate for the lack of supporters ready to contribute million-dollar donations, President Obama's team had to build campaign funds from grassroots supporters, at an average of $60 at a time.

To replace a lack of endorsements from national political leaders, Obama's team had to seek endorsements at a local level, from individual town leaders across the United States.

He had to get his name into widespread public use and he had to get advisors who could use special tools to catch up with Senator Clinton's advantages.

We all know the outcome. President Obama raised over US$500 million via small donations, built huge brand recognition across the United States and created a network of over 6.4 million engaged voters, who organised and influenced locally.

Ambassador Bleich says that social media shouldn't be thought of as creating a new way of communicating. It gives political leaders the capability to communicate with people in the same way they communicate in person.

He says that social media will replace traditional media where it is superior. It won't replace TV or other channels that are good at particular things that social media is not.

Bleich also said that shifting from campaign to governance has also posed an issue for social media use. The conversation is no longer with campaign supporters - a smaller and more supportive group. It is now with a nation, more people, more views and less support.

This view was reflected by Senator Christine Milne of the Greens during her comments on the panel 'How are real time and social media platforms changing political communication'. She said that MPs have a job to do - reading, discussing, meeting and voting. The time they can spend engaging and building relationships via social media channels is limited.

This raises an issue of authenticity. Milne says that even if MPs can spend time in social media building a 'celebrity' profile, if they cannot maintain the level of involvement and support it on an ongoing basis by delivering substance, it creates an issue.

Bleich said that Obama's campaign was able to fly under the radar, had no choice to experiment with online engagement. Whereas, Latika Bourke, during the panel discussion, said that during the Australian election most politicians went into hiding as they were afraid of being 'that politician who stuffed up on Twitter'.

So what does this mean for Australian politics and government?

It suggests to me that Australia's current political and government system will continue largely unchanged - on the surface.

While we don't face the same financial and engagement pressures as Obama's campaign there's no pressure forcing our politicians and public servants to engage online.

We're less likely to experiment and innovate while the fear of public failure outweighs the gain that can be achieved.

I realise this all sounds a little depressing for Gov 2.0 advocates - such as myself. However there are signs of hope.

Malcolm Turnbull, who was also on the panel, believes that technology has been a great democratiser - a child can make a movie with a mobile device that used to require a million dollars of equipment.

He says that despite some MPs feeling they face vitriol via social media channels, this isn't more than they previously faced via email, or even face-to-face.

He says that his engagement via Twitter is based on having a little fun, being willing to engage in a less formal way - be a little provocative, throw in some whimsy.

As we're already seeing with the growth of social media use by government there is increasing trust in allowing people to use the channel. As it becomes a normal approach to engagement the fear and scrutiny should diminish to the level appropriate to the medium and the messages.

This is likely to happen more slowly in a climate of 'business as usual' - where budgets exist for traditional media use and agencies and politicians both feel that existing channels meet their communications and engagement needs.

However change will happen. Social media will become a more important part of the mix where it is a superior medium. It just won't see the speed of adoption or innovation we saw during the last US Presidential campaign.

To give the last words to Ambassador Bleich, he said that social media can help spread facts as quickly as fictions. Government and politicians can use it to manage the 24 hour news cycle, mitigating issues by correcting news.

He says that social media, like all media since the printing press, is a two-edged sword - what's most important is that you have a handle on it.


  1. Not an unreasonable assumption. I think the other half of the story is having small, focused teams who want to make changes; and who are happy to upset the status quo.

  2. An interesting event, wasn't it? Many interesting take-aways to be had.

    For the public sector, I think we've still some way to travel. There's a continuing need for those of us with the capacity to show the way to do so. Whether that's in our role as private citizen participating in government, as professional providing expertise and insight or in an official capacity, making things happen in the organizations we have the privilege to work with and that want us to help them lead the way.

  3. Nice point, CloCkWeRX =)

    I agree with Stephen on showing the way, no matter what the role we're in. BTW, roles and profiles are yet another interesting topic in social media - worth a separate conversation, perhaps?

    However, I'd like to point out government offices with customer service. My point is that we can't afford to take care of certain guidance functions on one-on-one basis. Instead of answering privately to general questions, we can benefit masses with one answer on the right arena.

    Whereas MP's might have a hard time getting used to having discussions in writing without delay, our customer servants, at least those with email experience, are already quite "native" in social media arenas.


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