Thursday, October 23, 2008

An illusion of interactivity

It is argued that much of the supposed interactivity offered by political parties is illusory. We see opportunities to participate, invitations to send emails etc, we see the outcome of participation but what we seldom see is actual participation taking place or get the chance to do so. So while we can send an email we may never get a response or we hear of consultation but are unsure who actually took part. If you are cynical it can be assumed that there is a language of listening and participation but this is purely window dressing for a business as usual elitist political system.

I raise this in response to a curious live chat event advertised for 1.30pm today with Yvette Cooper Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I received an email invitation (below) which shows it was actually sent out at 1.35 so I was going to miss the start whatever happened.

I actually followed the link at 1.50 but was surprised to find that it had finished already. 'Yvette', as we assume it was she, told us there were hundreds of questions in, she answered seven which read very much as frequently asked questions on many public service/customer service pamphlets and web pages and then logged off. The dialogue may disappear soon but I give a flavour of it:

Steve Carlington, says: My bank has recently been unwilling to give me the credit I have always received to run my business. The government needs to do something to change this or else I will have no breathing room and things will become really tight and my business will suffer.

Yvette Cooper, says: Hello Steve. I'm sorry you are having such difficulties with your bank. I don't know your particular circumnstances, but we are worried about small businesses gettting hit by the global credit crunch. Mistakes in the international banking system and the fact that banks are still restricting credit are now having an effect on ordinary businesses not just in this country but all over the world. We have set conditions for those banks that are getting help from the government's new recapitalisation scheme, and they have agreed to increase availability of lending to small businesses as a result. Today Alistair Darling and Peter Mandelson are also meeting with senior executives of other banks to urge all of them to do more to support businesses at a difficult time. i think its important that if government is stepping in to support the banks, then banks should do their bit to support the rest of the economy too. We are also looking at other ways to support businesses who are having difficulty getting credit to help them through the tougher times.

My question, and it is a question, is this real interactivity, does Steve Carlington really exist and is he really a member of the public? Or is this smoke and mirrors interactivity, an illusion created using the sleight of hand enabled by the internet?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

strategy, tactic, but what about the outcome?

To engage with middle America, to overcome negative connotations, to answer critics, to be visible outside the traditional confines of a campaign, to be human/authentic/real, to be seen with celebrities, to get the message across.
To appear on Saturday Night live, alongside Tina Fey (the best Sarah Palin lookalike around) to allow the cast to poke fun and take it in your stride, to appear with Alec Baldwin and others, to smile and look like you are having fun.

Possible Outcomes
To achieve the long-term strategy, or to look rather false or silly, to trivialise the campaign and its issues. To actually be seen to endorse some of the negatives voiced by Baldwin and Amy Poehler in her rap.

Decision Making
Should she or shouldn't she - she chose yes but was this the right decision for her as a candidate to be Vice President?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Image: and how it can be interpreted

I borrow the title from an article today's Independent written by Archie Bland who chatted to me about the issues on Friday. The article argues that a bad photo, or more broadly television appearance, can make or break a campaign. Quoting PR consultant Mark Borkowski, the thesis is that "If you ever stop thinking about how you look, you can get caught out." And this is the problem with such images of William Hague in a baseball cap on an amusement park ride, the strange image of John McCain tongue out groping for his seat that has gone viral online and across the media, Miliband and that banana, John Redwood miming badly to the Welsh National Anthem well we could go on. But the key about these images is if they sit comfortably with the voters frame of reference. Basically we all possess a range of perceptions about every public figure, these are called schema. If US voters have a John McCain schema that includes old and frail then these images will build up that perception and could be reasons why they should not elect him as president (this is the point I make in the article about Hague's perceived immaturity, the picture of him as a boy stuck and reduced his credibility). However this negative may be seen as an aberration from the schema, that this is not really him and he cannot be judged by a photo capturing him when off guard, hence then the voter will reject the inference. So while Borkowski is absolutely right about the importance of image the decoding of any image is also a function of existing attitudes and perceptions. For voters in the US, and particularly those floating voters in the swing states do perceive McCain as "a frail old geezer staring fiercely at the backside of the man striding confidently away from him, making a last, desperate play for the vote of the lizards" then the picture will compound that image if not it will be ignored and filed as rather nasty media hype of an off guard aberration by a man who has the qualities to be a President. So the key lesson is not just don't look stupid (though that helps) but don't look stupid in a way that plays to existing prejudices

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Do personal emails work?

The campaigns of Obama and McCain both think I am an undecided voter in Ohio, though if anyone checks my zip code I live on an industrial estate. But it means I am happily receiving their e-newsletters and campaign emails. McCain's team are fairly infrequent in sending things and often it is more a series of news links than the mobilisation attempts employed by Obama. The latters' email campaign actually seems to hinge on personal emails from him, his wife, David Plouffe his campaign manager and since the Democratic convention Joe Biden joined the emaillers. Joe has sent an email today about his wife, the text is as follows:

"My wife Jill is an extraordinary woman. Jill's passion has always been education, and even during the campaign she's been teaching class during the week and joining me on the trail on the weekends. But this week, she also found some time to go to campaign headquarters and call voters in crucial battleground states. Jill has always had a great time talking to potential supporters, and I'm sure her calls brought Barack and me a few votes closer to victory. Can you do the same?"

Receivers can then watch a video of his wife Mrs Jill Biden phone canvassing, well mostly actually talking about herself and are then told the importance of the activity. But why is this tactic employed?
The notion to personalisation is to build a relationship between the individuals and so it draws on the same set of motivations as face-to-face communication between friends, not necessarily close friends but at the very least fellow community members perhaps. The question for me with it is whether it works. While the receivers have been introduced to new characters as the campaign has progressed towards the election are US subscribers now becoming anaesthetised to these appeals as they know what they are going to ask? It seems to have been used repeatedly and almost on a daily basis if not more often, what is the saturation point for any 'neighbour' asking for more participation - be it time or money - while the tactic is said to be successful is there a point where anything becomes over used?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

off guard?

In an era of media trainers, perception managers, branding consultants etc etc in politics it is perhaps refreshing when the politicians look normal, authentic and not stage managed. However there are also moments when you realise why those consultants are so important. There will be a lot of political points made about this, and already are across the blogosphere (such as here). Should it matter? probably not! Does it? Probably!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A new American hero

It seems everyone has now heard of a plumber from Toledo, Ohio by the name of Joe Wurzelbacher. He has been cast as a hero of American politics just because he became the ordinary guy after debating economics with Barack Obama when meeting him on the campaign trail. His name was first invoked by John McCain, and from then on he was drawn into last nights' debate continually despite not being present and in the end both McCain and Obama seemed to be fighting to appeal directly to him for his vote often talking directly to Joe via the camera. Politicos strung together the mentions and it is staggering just how many times his name was invoked.
According to a Ragan article, Joe the Plumber has become a feature of over 1,000 Google news items and tweets from both the floor of the debate and from PRs and journalists across the US, some suggesting he was to be offered a seat in the next President's cabinet. Of course these things are fairly facetious but there is a symbolic role that Joe the Plumber is playing that is not lost on commentators.

While Joe will not be in government he is being used as a representative of the floating voter in the swing state. He is worried about the economy and is unsure which candidate will work hardest and do the best job in protecting Joe's business, his home, his family during the recession. Obama telling Joe that small businesses like his would be exempt from paying Health Insurance for employees may be attractive, it certainly seemed to catch McCain off guard, but now Joe is, as the New York Times suggests, a "proxy for all of the country's working people", what is his verdict.

The new star of American politics was instantly interviewed and his words posted to YouTube. For him it was McCain that won the debate and his vote, Obama was a bit too socialist and perhaps parochial with "everything starting at home". But will this be important? If Joe continues to be used as a cipher there is the chance that this unscripted yet articulate small businessman could be perceived as the authentic voice of middle America and so Obama needs to consider how he can win him over between now and Nov 4th.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Perception Management

I was talking to my students today about the focus on image and marginalisation of substantial policy from much of the political communication that is made mainstream. In other words the stuff that is promoted to us is more about building a perception of the man rather than telling us what the man will do when elected. The following video is a prime example.

The link is sent around by email saying that his opponents are asking 'who is Barack Obama'. His campaign team's response is to: "share a video of personal moments from behind the scenes at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, so you can see Barack and Michelle as they are -- decent, warm, and kind people with a loving family". It is a fly on the wall style video, well done yet appearing to capture private moments - a cynic would wonder how much is staged and whether anyone can act normally when a camera is pointed at them. But the broader picture is also whether this is asking the US voter to vote Obama simply because he is a nice guy, a family guy, a guy 'like you' or just to get them interested and involved to collect further information. While the latter may be an aspiration is the former more likely in reality and if so does this have a negative impact on how informed voters actually are?

Online Democracy?

It is often argued that the Internet facilitates greater democracy, it allows the public to input ot news stories (comments posted to BBC Online for example) as well as start or contribute to existing debates through blogs etc. However there is a flip side to this. It also allows groups to gather data on specific questions that can then be used to promote an idea. The British National Party, for some unknown reason though a couple of insider investigations leading to arrests may give a clue, do not like the BBC. They have a poll on their front page asking about the licence fee, a contentious issue, but any rigor in the poll is destroyed by the two highly loaded questions (see 3, 4 and 5) the latter being purely sarcastic one assumes. While it is unlikely these results will have any impact it gives the notion of online democracy a bad name when the research is a push poll rather than something designed to gather information of any use.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Wink Wink

It is hard to tell whether Sarah Palin is popular or not, some sections of the media castigate her, others talk of her as the saviour of the Republican campaign: the authentic hockey mom. But what is interesting is the fuss being made of her winking. There are a few clips on YouTube, such as the below to illustrate this:

The media seem to suggest that what she is suggesting is an understanding of her audience. That by winking it is an unspoken gesture of empathy and being at one with the people. Hence while many papers quote strategist Axelrod saying she would perform well but that you can not get away with just a nod a wink or a smile. However her great quality is her ordinariness and perhaps the nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more tactic will work for her.

Friday, October 03, 2008


I do find it amusing that the media have dubbed the Government Of All Talents, an idea that has seen Fiona Phillips of GMTV offered a cabinet post has been given the acronym of GOAT. But I do worry about this, Peter Mandelson is returning, that in itself does not worry me, but what does is that some of these 'talents' are clearly unelected. Now it would seem a great idea to have the best people having a seat in decision making, but who do they represent. In theory members of the cabinet should be accountable to parliament and ultimately the people but when you have more than the couple of peers in Cabinet, all dependent on the PM for a job, surely this means they are only accountable to the PM and have not allegiance to anyone else particularly not parliament. Is this just me??

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The online race to be (LibDem) President

From a very slow start, Lembit Opik seems to have launched a campaign for his bid to be LibDem leader. Interestingly the BBC picked up on the bit of the contest taking place on Facebook, both he and Ros Scott have '4 President' groups and in terms of membership Opik is winning 694 to 416. So does this indicate anything, no and numbers alone rarely do. Those supporting Opik are mostly UK based, but include people from the Caribbean, across Europe and one Alex Hilton the creator of LabourHome. Scott, on the other hand, has all the MPs showing their support and hers seems to be the site for the party elite and some of the activists.

In terms of content however, Opik's Discussion Board contains the question 'will he help or hinder the party' and there are 5 posts. Yes they all say he will help, but it does focus on some of the questions about whether he can be taken seriously as a politician. A clever persuasive tool is for the admin to put up the question and get the ordinary visitor to give an endorsement. Scott's page is a little drab in that respect, pictures of her touring the constituencies but nothing that shouts out at the visitor.

Ros Scott's website however is the focus of her campaign. Here visitors are asked to input a postcode or select a region and then you get endorsements from local party activists from the local MEP to councillors to an ordinary, new member of Poole Liberal Democrats. A very attractive site and perhaps pitched right for the target audience of card carrying members. Lembit Opik's is nicely branded, it is yellow, but far more haphazard and unprofessional. There are a range of endorsements from MPs, PPCs etc but it does not have the attractive presentation; but does this matter really?

Perhaps the telling difference is the statements. Scott talks in manifestos and there is a lot of words to get through, but this is ideal for those who have high involvement in the contest and its outcome. Opik offers 12 lines that are about his personal values as opposed to the nitty gritty of politics and the role of the President. It is a contrast between Opik's "President with vim and verve, who everyone knows" and "someone who represents that membership not just to the outside world, but internally, to the Leader". But it depends on the audience which will have the greatest persuasive impact. Is it a case of style versus substance, celebrity versus grassroots campaigner and if so which would you put money on to win?