Friday, August 24, 2007

The next US presidential campaign - maybe

Hilary Clinton seems to remain the favourite to be the Democrat candidate despite all of the hype surrounding Barack Obama. One reason is her strategist Mark Penn who is seen as the ultimate professional campaign strategist. So why is that, these are the attributes that The Economist argues earmarks him for the top.
  • He is a master of demographic trends and poll data;
  • He thinks elections are won by wooing swing voters rather than revving up the base;
  • He is happiest with the politics of “triangulation”, so going for the centre ground;
  • He has vested, business interests behind him to drive him to victory;
  • He hates populism.

This suggests greater segmentation and targeting, a further shrinking of the party difference and a new set of insider dealings and patronage to be ushered in. Is this really what the voters of America want?

That perception thing

The book that all sensible political strategists are reading [Drew Westen's The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation] concludes that "people vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not the candidate who presents the best arguments." And in an assessment of US politics argues that there is a fundamental problem with the emotional appeals created by the candidates, and in particular the Democrat Party. The problem is the use of negativity and appeals to fear and prejudice. Western argues political communication "can just as easily be appeals to their hopes and dreams, their sense of shared fate or purpose, their better angels, or their sense that there might be someone who genuinely cares about their welfare and has what it takes to restore it." This, Western argues, in a Guardian review of his book, is why Bush beat Gore, Bush appealed to the little man while Gore had the big picture and the statistics.

Hard to say exactly how accurate this picture is, but it is hard to say it is wrong in anyway; but as the strategists within Westminster and Whitehall devour Weston's argument will this herald in an abandonment of the negative ad and fear appeal or will the cheap shot remain the silver bullet of political advertising?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Defending the Indefensible

Arleen Ouzounian may not be a particularly well-known name in UK politics but she came under significant fire in the blogosphere for a statement she made as Chair of King's College Conservatives. This statement firstly mourned the death of Ealing and Southall Labour MP Piara Khabra then went on to talk about the opportunity this offered to Conservatives using the phrase "Christmas has come early". The original blog post has been edited and a number of defences and apologies produced. Few seem to be rushing to defend the statement however, for the original see Recess Monkey's report of this. There is a Facebook group 'Arleen is Innocent' which states that "Arleen Ouzounian has come under attack from shameless leftist bloggers and faceless political hacks" and that "Arleen did not describe the death of Piara Khabra as being like Christmas come early. That is a deliberate misquote. Her blog post consisted of two parts, explicitly divided by belonging to two separate paragraphs, and hence to two self-contained ideas". The group has only 22 members.

The reason for the lack of support is perhaps because her statement was an open goal with PR disaster written all over it. The language of the original statement is bad enough, sorry he died and Christmas come early, can never be in the same statement however they are separated. But to then argue that "One could only misunderstand Arleen's post in such a manner with deliberate and malicious intent" is as equally misguided. The only sensible response is the throw hands up, admit to a cock-up made in the excitement of the moment of considering a by-election and then hide. To accuse left or right of acting in a scurrilous way loses you sympathy. This is a shame for Ms Ouzounian, this type of thing will undoubtedly be used by all her opponents to thwart her political career if she desires one, and this is prolonged by the failure to apologise and draw a line under the matter. Arleen is not innocent, she is not evil, no but she is guilty of a serious PR blunder and it will take a lot to rescue her reputation as a result. And the lesson: think before you blog!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Why Wikipedia is untrustworthy

There was a fascinating piece in Saturday's Independent on Wikipedia and the fact that it is being censored for PR purposes. For example, and focusing on those with a political aspect, references to 'careerist MPs supporting the leader' have been erased by Labour HQ surfers; a piece on Letwin's gaffe and subsequent disappearance from the 2001 election campaign was erased by, yes, the Conservative Party; even Amnesty International tidied up their entry deleting references to an anti-American agenda. As the links show, the stories are all available elsewhere, so why are these organisations so worried about Wikipedia.

The reason seems to be, and this is not alluded to in the article too well, that Wikipedia is the fount of all knowledge for the lazy. Every year we repeat to students the mantra 'do not reference Wikipedia', so they plagiarise it instead - bless them! But seriously it is becoming the place for the random facts to back up essays and who knows what else; maybe government reports, editorials, news. It certainly gets traffic, it advertises receiving around 30,000 hits per day. The worry then is that this could be a serious PR tool.

But this censorship could be the prelude to something else, the undermining of campaigns by setting up false entries. It would be fairly cheap to have someone building false and damaging profiles of political opponents and ensuring the negative versions are on the web more than any favourable or objective versions. It could be a battle ground where parties can write and re-write their own and their opponents' history, and thus it could show its true potential, to be entirely misleading due to a lack of any regulation. It is a shame but it is a clear lesson that Wikipedia is probably going to be about as accurate as the average autobiography as no one wants people to get the wrong idea about them when trying to get elected.

Blowing Dog-Whistles

The concept of the dog-whistle in political communication is a message sent out that is meant to be heard loudest by a core group of a parties actual or potential supporters. This can be reassuring the hard core loyalists or suggesting a shift that is attractive to the floating voters. Gordon Brown seems to have used the dog-whistle quite a bit, he hints at a withdrawal from Iraq while enforcing the message of change. So he talks to both the core Labour supporter as well as reassuring those who have been Labour supporters since 1997 but feel let down.

Last week (and I would have blogged this at the time but I had log in problems) Wendy Alexander, candidate to lead the Scottish Labour Party blew her own pro-Gordon dog-whistle designed to draw back supporters from the SNP. Without criticising Gordon, but instead blaming the problems that will probably always be associated with the last years of Blair's premiership, she suggested why Labour lost in Scotland "Iraq and cash for honours allegations played their part, but we would be fooling ourselves if we didn't recognise that we, in Scottish Labour, were also at fault in that defeat... The SNP didn't just win with slick presentational tricks... They won because they seized Labour's agenda of hope and aspiration... In May the people of Scotland told us loud and clear they wanted change... So change we must. Change how we behave, change how we engage and change how we respond to the people we represent".

This fits perfectly with Brown's agenda, bracket off the past, show the party has changed and offer the party as a new brand, with a new character. If the Scottish Labour voters see this as a true reflection of where the party is going they may just go back to Labour. Dog-whistles do work, provided the message is believed!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

In Vogue

Politicians, on resigning, and prime ministers and presidents in particular, often wish to leave some comments for posterity. Autobiographies usually. For Blair there have been a range of soft-focus interviews showing the human dimension and the latest is an interview with Vogue magazine that finds him on the front cover. Some media even claiming his image has been airbrushed to make him look younger

Given he was once voted one of the 'sexiest men' and courted media attention as a celebrity as well as courting celebrities, generally this is probably little surprise. But is there a political strategy behind this?

At the 2005 election Blair was keen to court female voters who had lost trust in him over the Iraq War, is he now concerned about is legacy and the perception these same British women hold of him? But this is Men's Vogue, so who is it that he is trying to win over with this and why? I wonder what the interview contains, but am not yet certain whether I can steal myself to buy Vogue and find out.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Lib Dems conquer social networking

Critics may mock the fact that the Liberal Democrats have the most MPs (by percent) on Facebook, well 40% is only 25 MPs, but at least they have a strategy for joining the network. Steve Webb, an MP who has spearheaded the party's web presence through his blog, argues: ""Young people are far less likely to vote than their parents and grandparents, yet many of them have strong views on local and national issues and want their voice to be heard. Social networking sites such as Facebook provide an ideal way for this conversation to take place." And he may just be right in his perspective. While many have knocked Ming Campbell for appearing 'too old' to be a party leader, it is he that has the most friends and is nickname 'The Mingler' by some on his wall; is this the springboard for attracting votes also? It maybe too soon to tell but if Facebook can be a place to start a conversation, and a lot of young people choose to join that conversation, will we see an increase in young voters, and an increase in support for particular parties; is social media the new battleground during the permanent campaign?