Thursday, February 28, 2008

Robinson, Kilfoyle and an EDM

BBC Political editor has started a bit of a stir on his Newslog. When he provided a list of reasons why most of Westminster were backing speaker Michael Martin despite the funding allegations that have caused him to have problems he could not predict that it would provoke Peter Kilfoyle MP to post criticising Robinson's comments. Nick Reynolds remarks, it could be the start of MPs joining the conversation on the blogosphere. But then Kilfoyle went a step further and, with 52 colleagues, tabled an Early Day Motion calling:

That this House deplores the innuendo of the blog of Nick Robinson, the BBC's lobby correspondent; calls upon him to substantiate the imputations he makes in his blog concerning the Speaker and hon. Members; and also calls upon the BBC to publish a full, itemised account of the expenses of Mr Robinson, in the name of transparency and accountability of public funds.

Not sure why his expenses are brought up, though I suppose there is an interesting parallel between MPs and BBC journalists [both seek to represent the public and are funded by the public], but to name a journalist as opposed to the BBC or media more generally seems to make a serious issue into a personal battle between Robinson and Kilfoyle.

It is a fact that both politicians and journalists need to ensure that they deliver factual information to the public, and ensure they do not spin and rumour monger. Perhaps parliament needs to introduce legislation to ensure there is honesty and transparency at every level, that laws apply to MPs as members of our society, and that there are penalties imposed on those to transgress. Trust in politicians is about as low as is possible; trust in journalists is not much better, according to an IpsosMORI poll for the BBC 46% say the government is the least trust institution, 55% think MPs put their own interests first only 10% feel they represent constituents or the country, only 25% trust the media generally. But this can only become further entrenched by a public contest between politicians and the most trusted media outlet's political editor.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Throwing in the kitchen sink

Polls in the US suggest that Obama is taken a significant lead among Democrat voters and, most seriously for Clinton's campaign, in partiuclar among Clinton's core supporters: women, low-income families and political moderates. Her response, according to one aide talking to the New York Times, a "kitchen sink" fusillade against Obama that will focus on five points of perceived weakness in his experience and preparedness for government. Her tactic is to retain her older female voters while also trying to sow doubts in the minds of those currently leaning towards Obama.

There are serious problems with this however. Firstly it is perhaps not the most efficacious sight for candidates from the same party to be too negative about one another, it can expose rifts and give an appearance of weakness. More importantly for Clinton, given that she has not been too negative so far, it may seem as a last ditch act of desperation (as noted by Ed Pilkington). Furthermore, will going negative achieve the task required for Clinton? If she cannot win with a positive argument, why will attacking the opponent have the desired effect? Could attacks on Obama, who seems to have the charisma to have public popularity, be counter-productive and lose her public support? Clinton may already have been damaged by the allegation that she has circulated the below picture of Obama wearing traditonal Somali dress, could further tarnishing of her name be on the cards? We have seven days to find out.
Hillary claims that Americans “need a president who knows how to deploy both the olive branch and the arrows, who will be ready to act swiftly and decisively in a crisis.” Is this demonstrated by her style of campaigning and so is intended as a synonym for her Presidential style or is it just a bad plan?

How to target the online influencers

Given the CPS report on the importance of bloggers who have a significant share of the online readership and so assumed influence, and the fact that many PR agencies are seriously considering how to harness the power of the blogosphere, or sometimes counter and neutralise online criticism, Mark Hanson's article in PR Week is highly prescient. As media officer for LabourHome as well as a partner in Staniforth, Hanson is perfectly placed to consider these questions from a political perspective and offers the following advise on how to reach the bloggers who are influential.

Firstly parties need to trawl for hits of key phrases to check where the issues are being discussed; second assess the importance of each site in terms of the quality and relevance of the content and the amount of readers in order to discover where the potential audience is; this will represent a network in which there are the influentials and the long tail of readers who may contribute comments or simply lurk on the edge of the network [the theory is that 1 issue will picked up by 9 bloggers which will then influence a further 90 individuals as pictured below by Chris Anderson]; once identified the network is assessed to see how the party/candidate can use it; finally getting the network onside.
Advocacy and word-of-mouth promotion is a powerful tool of PR. If certain bloggers are influential and can promote a party, its leader, policies and initiate viral campaigns such as the one for Mark McDonald to be party treasurer, then it could be a kind of endorsement that could have an effect. Key for Hanson is that parties and candidates recognise that there are new ways to interact with the public/electorate (speak and listen to in his words), PR agencies have picked up on this Hanson suggests parties need to do likewise.

P.S. on a completely different not, is anyone else puzzled that blog, blogger and associated phrases are not in the 'blogger' dictionary?

Anti-Obama or Anti-Democrat

A piece of negative ‘advertising’, a mistake or the Republican media offering negative perceptions of both Democratic candidates? While it is being seen as a Clinton tactic and subsequent gaffe, one has to question who benefits most.

The Online Environment - Transforming Politics

Robert Colvile has produced a very interesting report for the Centre for Policy Studies entitled Politics, Policy and the Internet it makes a number of interesting claims:
  • Just as television and radio transformed the way politics operated in the twentieth century so in the future will the Internet have a profound effect on the language and conduct of politics and policy. This will be a gradual and inexorable phenomenon.
  • The Internet has already had an impact on politics. But in the UK, it is underdeveloped compared to many other countries, in particular the US.
  • In particular, British political parties have failed to embrace this new opportunity. The British National Party website has the same market share as all of the other major political parties combined.
  • The parties could reverse this by altering their mindset from “send” to “receive”, by learning the lessons of unofficial organisations such as bloggers, activists and campaign groups which have exploited the potential of the Internet.
  • The Internet will bring a far greater openness to politics. The power of search will enforce consistency and depth in both policy and communication of policy. And the tone of debate will, at least in many cases, remain lively, anti-establishment and original.
  • For the activist and the citizen, the Internet will increasingly be used to hold politicians to account and to enable like minded groups (such as the those opposed to road pricing) to develop potent single-issue campaigns.
  • The web could also re-empower MPs, by linking them far more directly to the concerns of their constituents. Most have, so far, failed to grasp this opportunity.
  • For policy development, the Internet will bring greater scrutiny; and greater access to official government data could revolutionise the way policy-making works.
  • Should the vision of leading thinkers on both the Labour and Conservative sides be translated into reality, then the Internet should become the key forum for proposing and organising support for new policies.
  • The most subtle, but perhaps most powerful, change, will be to the public’s mindset. As we grow used to the instant availability of information online, we will no longer tolerate delay and obfuscation in getting similar information from government. The individual, and not the state, will be the master in the digital age.
Share of voice online is an interesting statistic, Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale have 45% of the market share in terms of readership and so presence and perhaps influence: though there is no direct correlation between readers and influence some can be assumed. Sites such as LabourHome are far behind as are MPs blogs, but the total hits for party sites is minuscule: "Hitwise calculated that there was an online market share of 0.00012% for the Green Party website, 0.00018% for Labour, 0.00043% for the Lib Dems and 0.00051% for Labour. The Conservatives had double the visits, with 0.001% per cent – but the BNP was double their level again, on 0.0022%" (p. 13). While this is as a percentage of web users there is a suggestion in this that the parties are not offering the sort of content visitors find attractive.

But Colvile calls for the potential of the Internet to be harnessed in a way suggested by David Cameron in a paper entitled “Power to the People”, he argued that:

“I would like to see a system whereby, if enough people sign an online petition in favour of a particular motion, then a debate is held in Parliament, followed by a vote – so that the public know what their elected representatives actually think about the issues that matter to them.”

This in essence is something that the web community has been arguing for and criticising politician's use of the Internet for. Given that the Internet is increasingly constructed around virtual communities of participation, who can debate anything from the highly philosophical to the mundane, there is clearly potential for politicians to build an online political public sphere. The problem is getting a wider public to join in. A review in PR Week talks of Boris Johnson using the Internet for borough-based campaigning, but will this translate into trust and support for him as a Mayoral candidate. Does the share of voice and hits identified mean anything in terms of share of vote or actual support?

While there is potential, politicians cannot just create a blog, build a website or join Facebook and expect to reap rewards. Perhaps Johnson's bottom-up approach is best for creating engagement but putting existing bloggers on party staff is not an answer, neither is appearing 'palpably human' online unless the image is consistent offline and via the media. There is potential but engagement with Internet user must be entered into wholeheartedly or perhaps it is not worth considering even as "repositories of press releases and propaganda".

Monday, February 25, 2008

Inappropriate - or just normal?

The only exciting event of the 2001 UK General Election was the Prescott Punch, a member of a crowd attacked him, he punched him and they ended up rolling around in a heap. Not the best sight in the world but it did Prescott no real harm as many said it is the normal reaction. French president Nicolas Sarkozy faces a similar dilemma, on Saturday he visited a farming centre (Politique agricole commune) was doing the usual meeting and greeting, shaking hands, waving and saying 'Merci' when one man whose hand he was going to shake withdrew his hand and told the french president not to touch him as it would make him 'dirty' "Touche moi pas, tu me salis"; Sarkozy responded with "Casse-toi alors, pauvre con" which translates as 'then get out of here you jerk', though there are various translations offered on the web (funnily enough 'pauvre' wasn't taught at O'Level).

The french newspaper Le Parisien has made it a big story, and because it was on video they have posted it on their website, there are pages of comments. It is also very popular on YouTube, particularly among french users, 555 thousand views and 1,534 comments and counting. So the world has now seen him calling a left-wing opponent a 'jerk', will this damage his reputation or enhance it. Opinion on YouTube is mixed but there is a lot of 'go for it' style remarks as well as hostility to Sarkozy himself (not necessarily about what he said). Is this him showing he is an authentic, normal guy or did he make a fool of himself and demean the office of the president - what perception to we take of him following this incident?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Co-production: the positives and negatives!

Social networking sites such as Facebook are not promotional tools, attempts to use social networking to promote products, brands or individuals that can use other media and are not part of the community can mean network users can reject them. Brands advertise via social media but seldom intrude using profiles etc; politicians are different, as individuals they can be members of a community but must also follow the communities rules and allow co-production of site or profile content. Friends can post words, pictures etc on each other's wall, interact with one another and maintain relationships via the site.

Politicians like to use the Internet as a promotional tool, and particularly at the party level want to communicate to voters but are worried of the consequences of allowing the ordinary people (which also includes opponents) to contribute whatever whenever they like. David Cameron seems to be willing to take that risk. The Webcameron YouTube page allows comments, unlike Labour, and his Facebook profile is asking supporters to upload pictures of them meeting him. The former gives the appearance of being open, the latter builds on this by providing the impression of accessibility.

But is this going to pay dividends or be a highly risky enterprise. At worst it could allow opponents to say what they like and give negative images and opinions wider circulation. But this may not be the problem it would seem. If Cameron and his communications team engage with critics it can diffuse the situation and provided images that could be damaging are greeted with humour rather than fear and censure, it could enhance the Cameron brand, it cannot replace substance but it may build positive perceptions and impressions.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Clever news management

David Cameron's speech and accompanying evidence of Brown's 'Government by Gimmick' could have been very damaging. Governments need to appear proactive and finding solutions to social problems, but due perhaps to the news cycle they are compelled to quickly grab the headlines prior to checking if they can deliver. the fact that delivery is often hard to ensure for any individual and the media quickly lose interest means the spotlight soon shifts and things fall off the agenda. To focus on the only controversial point, that trips to Auschwitz are a gimmick, is a clever move. While the evening news programmes carried the story, the focus was on the demands for Cameron to apologise and it was his reputation that was damaged. Not a wise move by him in wording the 'gimmick' in the way he did, but a good move by Labour's news management team in taking the heat out of the story.

The Old and the New

The big news in the Conservatives e-newsletter is not particularly political, it is more of the symbolic. Lady Thatcher is shown around the 'new' Conservative HQ before unveiling a bust of herself to accompany the same of Churchill in the reception. The script is full of symbolism, the attachment to the old but the break to something new and of course the very modern and cool David Cameron leading the viewer around.

The one odd bit of this is he calls Lady Thatcher 'Lady T', her face is not shown when he says it so whether he does so with her approval or what it is impossible to tell but its the 'call me Dave' informality - a little more symbolism perhaps.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Not the USP you imagine!

Labour have sent around an email today advertising what they think are their top 50 achievements since taking office in 1997 and on the email advertise that we can suggest what we would add or take away. Funnily enough the website is locked so you cannot read visitor contributions and so you are faced with their list prefaced by the question "If you're thankful for these achievements - why not join us?": this is a link to their 'join' page. While I do not contest the list in itself, though opponents undoubtedly will, it is the heavy handed promotionalism that seems to be bad PR.

The invitation to add and subtract achievements is attractive, so is reading the comments of others, but there is actually the sense that the 50 will not change, the offer to interact with the content is simply an incentive to visit the page. The intention seems to be to hook the subscriber, convince them of the achievements of Labour and hopefully get them to join the party (an assumption being that email subscribers are at the least supportive). It also seems to be little more than a way of collecting emails so they can contact people (see screenshot below), but there has to be an exchange for this; what does one get from allowing Labour to have your contact details. You see the web community seem to be moving away from promotion and to a position where the whole point of the internet is co-production of web content and participation: not simply one way or two way communication. Being offered the chance to participate and then to doubt the extent to which any feedback will go anywhere apart from a virtual black hole gives a negative perception of the host. After the big conversation one may think Labour had learned this lesson, it seems not.

A Further Thought: is this a ham-fisted early shot in a possible long election campaign or is this out of the question given the rating given to Brown et al in recent months?

Enter the Messiah?

In contrast to the AOL celebrity endorsement that some see as 'publicity' but most argue is a dead duck; is this by Barack Obama. Not only does he carry the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey someone who, in terms of setting the agenda, has been argued to be the most influential woman in America, he now has the music business on side:

Not only is it celebrity endorsement but is a campaign in itself, even offering its own website. It appears as to be mroe than a contrived camapign video though, the narrative explains it was a spontaneous action independent of Obama, thus he is placed as a Martin Luther King style character, an agent of change, messianic but also very now - he is a pop star preacher. A gimmick or one of the most powerful peace of political communication?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Good or Bad? Funny or Cringeworthy?

In a departure from politics; AOL have produced a promo video that seems to be intended as a rival (funny) video that will be circulated by us bloggers and web-users. I was sent a link from the Ragan website where feelings are mixed, well more like 90% against - so what is the verdict? Will this go viral as a great 'The Office' style comedy moment, will it go viral because it is just BAAAAD, or is it a dead duck?

Stealing Obama's USP?

There is a rival to Obama's title as the outsider in the presidential race, the independent Ron Paul. While his campaign is fairly lacklustre there is a guy by the name of Patrick Saint James that is producing videos in support of his campaign. The comments reflect firstly a sense of disillusionment with the American political system (for example '2 parties = no choice' seems a commonly voiced sentiment) or that in fact these videos are the best of the campaign so far. So here is one, what do you think? And more importantly, is this predominantly a negative ad, is it mainly comparative or is the main function to just promote Ron Paul?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Making audiences think

I say part one of The Last Enemy, the most powerful way of gaining support for a political message is to plant it within a 'science fiction thriller'. As producer Gub Neal says: "The Last Enemy is... a cautionary tale about technology, with identity cards, biometric tests and armed police becoming an everyday presence in our lives". While many may not wish to listen to the complex arguments for and against identity cards etc, and do not consider how much data already exists on us via loyalty, credit and bank cards and through data collected by internet service providers, this gets the message home in a powerful but subtle way. If anyone was to call a referendum on ID cards while this drama is fresh in the memory I predict it would fail, such is the power of the dramatic narrative - they can make the audiences think far more than highbrow political debate and reach far more people.

It's all about credibility

The Northern Rock crisis has haunted Alastair Darling and Gordon Brown despite it being a problem that is not of their making. The current problem is though that the prime minister and his Chancellor have failed to be seen to act in a determined and proactive way. I do not suggest that their actions are not the result of careful weighing up of the options and thinking through the possible strategies and their outcomes, the problem is that the communication seems to be failing to make them appear credible. Thus, while Darling et al may (or may not) be in control, Osborne's comments that he has "no credibility" as chancellor and is now "politically a dead man walking" may well have more resonance than Darling's response that it was "cynical opportunism with a pretty thin veneer of abuse". The Sunday Times interpreted poll results to create the headline 'Alistair Darling must go, say voters'. The Yougov poll shows that 57% of respondents think Brown is doing a bad job; 31% said that Cameron and Brown could be most trusted to raise their standard of living (only 25% said the same of Brown & Darling), and 44% think Darling should be replaced. Regardless of the caveats related to opinion polls, it seems Brown and darling have lost the one unique selling point Labour had, the credibility that comes with managerial competence: is there a way back?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Conservatives plan to eradicate Jeremy Kyle

Chris Grayling yesterday called for more positive male role models to combat the "Jeremy Kyle generation" of young men ill-equipped for adult life. The Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary stressed, "As a society, we're leaving a lot of men behind. We have a growing generation of young men, alienated and drifting, without a purpose in life." His plan to combat the situation is to create a climate for social entrepreneurs to re-engage young men and to promote positive male role models, including more male primary school teachers. The question for me is where did the idea of calling them the Jeremy Kyle generation come from?

ITV1's Jeremy Kyle Show describes itself as one of Britain's most-loved, watched and talked-about shows that deals with family and relationship issues and also takes a look at the everyday conflicts that affect our lives. I confess to not watching it, guess I can't be one of the JK generation, but it doesn't seem to be solely for young men. Maybe Grayling is describing Kyle as a young man ill-equipped for adult life, while Kyle has been described as someone making a living by exploiting those with troubled lives or "the human bear bater", not sure his show is anything more than symptomatic of a desire for fame than representative of the collapse of society. While it may well be true that there is a growing group of disaffected and aimless males in society, is coming up with a celebritised name for them an cheap attempt at grabbing a headline or is there a profound reason for linking this phenomena to Jeremy Kyle.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Grassroot Power: Labour's campaign from below

Labour's grassroots are fairly silent, in fact dissatisfaction is largely only visible by the decline in members; one rarely hears discontent from the members. However LabourHome provides a forum for criticism, and is often used as such; but now it is also providing voice for a campaign to take back control over party finances and ensure members [especially Union members] fees are not wasted. According to PR Week, the "plotters" have learned their lessons from US political communication, particularly the Hillary Clinton campaign, that a key way to gain momentum is to target key groups via web-based fora. Though reading the site I am not sure if the language used by PR Week of 'plotters' or 'overthrow' is appropriate, but it is a concerted effort to get Dromey removed in light of questions surrounding party funding and those of his wife's campaign and install Mark McDonald described as "one of our own".

What it does indicate though is that such sites must be now reaching a critical mass and have become effective ways of reaching and mobilising groups such as party and union members. As the PR Week article notes political communication lags behind the US in web use; however the exchange of personell [such as Jag Singh who PR Week says helped in Hillary Clinton's super Tuesday success - did I miss that on the news] means the web will probably become a key tool and political communication via the blogosphere that attempts to have influence through the viral nature of the internet will become far more widespread.

Guess it is working, free publicity from PR Week and from me,
what more can a campaign ask for?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Down, Down - down the dustpipe

This video by Harry Hammersmith and the Flyovers is produced by Hammersmith and Fulham council to "engage residents on its budget". But check out the 'engagement' they have gained on the Youtube page. In only ten days it seems to have become an open forum for disgruntled council employees, residents and anybody who wishes to slag them off basically. A great example of the dangers outweighing the potential of the online environment perhaps and an indication of why electoral political organisations seem nervous of allowing feedback and co-production.

Obama is getting serious

Obama tends to avoid substance, in fact his whole selling point seems to be more about image [him as the outsider] and his rhetoric of change than specific policies he intends to introduce. This is a sharp contrast to his main rival, last night Hillary Clinton made very specific promises to withdraw troops from Iraq and a range of social reform schemes. Obama was less specific in Virginia as he celebrated his primary victories. Interestingly though both attempted to cement Democrats behind them and against John McCain, perhaps all candidates now are advised it is time to appear like a president.

But there is still a question for Democrats, and for anyone interested in US politics. Obama seems to be attracting those not known for high involvement in politics; hence rhetoric and image is the most appropriate way of reaching and mobilising them. Clinton uses the symbolism associated with her husband but also challenges voters to think about their choice carefully and to think about the big issues. If Obama wins he may capture the support of all those voters who do not want to think too hard and for whom colour is not an issue; Clinton may have broader appeal based on the fact she can offer authenticity [if not the charisma of Obama], symbolic appeal and also hard policy. McCain, well will he be seen as Bush Mk II or III or can he emerge as the consensus candidate that appeals to centrists and right wingers. He also has a raft of issues to draw on, therefore the polls may indicate a lot about US voters and how they process campaign information as well as how the candidates are doing.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Sex and Politics

For decades in the US, organisations like Young America's Foundation, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Leadership Institute have worked to organize, train and support conservative students on campus. Conservatives in Britain, however, have lacked a similar organisation until the establishment in 2003 of the Young Britons Foundation, whose executive director, Shane Greer, writes about "winning on campus":

One of the biggest battlegrounds for conservatives in Britain is on university
campuses. They've always been breeding grounds for the Left, but winning the
minds of the next generation is crucial if the Party is to shift the centre
ground to the right. The Left have for years been streets ahead of conservatives
when it came to campus activism and winning the visual battle - when it came to
presentation the Left reigned supreme.
By its nature campus activism has to be fun, edgy, and of course exciting; the sexual health awareness group promotes itself during 'SHAG Week' naturally. But will students warm equally to provocative advertisements that promote politics? The below posters were launched in October 2007 but I have not seen any around Bournemouth (a shame perhaps), can these be another strand to gaining the Conservatives a foothold into youth politics?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A breed apart

Has it been a week, this is what happens when a marking deadline nears; I was tempted to blog some of the silly, odd etc, etc, quotes from assignments asking if politicians and the media propagandise. Decided against it! For now!!
The theme of many stories over the last seven days has been whether MPs should abide by the same rules as the rest of us. That may not be the question asked all the time but it underlines many of the cases emerging in the media. It makes you think, or it did me: if any of us embezzled money (and I will use that phrase) we would be sacked; also we would be investigated and prosecuted; also our expenses are heavily scrutinised; and we have no right to argue if we have telephone calls or private conversations bugged and perhaps would never know. So why are MPs different?
I think it was Mr Khan, speaking over the weekend, who said something along the lines that MPs should be above suspicion, if you cannot trust them then democracy is in trouble; not exactly but that was the jist. Now who trusts politicians, sometimes their own if they have met them, but politicians are the least trusted profession in Britain. So whether bugging etc should be allowed is a question that should work for all people and the decision should be defensible under the rule of law; MPs should abide by the rule of law as much or more so than the rest of us (as they contribute to making law) and they should under every circumstance be treated as every other public employee. If this happened more people may see them as representatives as opposed to untrustworthy individuals out for themselves. If perception is everything, just making the argument that they should be above trust is counter-productive as well as being counter-intuitive.