Sunday, September 28, 2008

The dirty politics of cybersquatting

Anyone can create a website and use any name they want, I think it would be a brave individual or organisation that would try to sue someone for breach of copyright over a name unless there already was the copyright in place. So if someone does create a site attacking you called don't think you have recourse to law. It is known as cybersquatting, taking over someone's name and using that to promote your message and not theirs. In politics it is becoming a well-used tool. In 2005 the Conservatives created to counter the Liberal Democrats' decapitation strategy. The same has been launched by Obama with The site offers "three things every voter should know about John McCain and... Iraq" for example. The simple message on most of the pages is that McCain is Bush by another name and so Obama and Biden are the candidates that offer real change - the ongoing narrative of his campaign pretty much.

So why is this not on his website, well it is, but why go cybersquatting? Well if a floating voter does go and Googles 'John McCain's Record' it comes up as the fourth hit. If Obama can get this to the top of the search results then voters will see his record before seeing that of McCain. I am not sure if McCain has a similar site, I saw this promoted via a premium ad on at first I thought it was a McCain paid-for link, another way of capturing voters' attention. Such is the way the Internet allows for innovation in campaign strategy.

Learning from Obama and Royal

French Presidential runner-up Segolene Royal allowed co-production of policy on her website, creating a 'Notebooks of Hope' section where French voters could express their aspiration about the future. While it did not secure her the office it represented a departure from the traditional top-down style of campaign communication. Obama, meanwhile, has made much use of videos where ordinary Americans can state why they back Obama for the presidency. This method of citizen endorsement could be a highly influential tool of persuasion as well as giving some sense of joint ownership of the campaign to his 'movement'.

Both tools are to be features of the Conservatives revamped website and in particular The Blue Blog according to a BBC News report the initiatives are designed to create a "sense of closeness" between supporters and party leaders - not between the party and ordinary voters one can note. Caroline Spelman is quoted as saying: "With a general election on the horizon the rejuvenated website will play an important role in getting our message out and be an integral part of any campaign." The videos will be recorded at the Conference taking place in Birmingham this week. Clearly it indicates that the Internet is becoming integral to the campaign but what seems doubtful is whether interactivity is a goal.

Picking up on previous posts on Web 2.0, while the party seem keen to mobilise and include the activists, there is doubt as to whether they can draw the key audience of floating voters towards the party. However it may be argued that there is a trickle-down theory here. That by including activists they may draw in a wider audience who can observe the interaction if not take part and so gain a perception of a party that is non-elitist and that listens.

As an aside, if you Google Blue Blog you firstly get a knitting site, then the Conservatives and third an Everton FC supporters blog: not exactly a distinctive name which may be a problem!

Should the rules change?

Nadine Dorries MP has had a blog for some time, she blogs a lot and often offers some interesting insights into her thinking. Sunny Hundal reported to the Parliamentary Commissioner that the blog was being publicly funded from her communication budget; this is up to £7,000 that can be spent on the production and distribution of documents including annual reports, surveys and letters, official parliamentary websites - which would be taken down during general elections - but not party political campaigning or information. According to Jack Straw the idea is that it will fund communication that will "contribute towards public understanding of what this Parliament is for and what it does".

Although little has been done to Nadine Dorries, in fact her blog claims she was cleared of wrongdoing. The ruling however makes three points:

The rules of the house, however, do require Members to make a clear distinction between websites which are financed from public funds and any other domain. At the time of your complaint, Mrs Dorries’ website did not meet that requirement. Nor was it appropriate that she use the Portcullis emblem on the weblog given its contents. And the funding attribution on Mrs Dorries’ Home Page should have been updated to reflect that the funding came from the Communications Allowance and not from the Incidental Expenses Provision.

Clearly the sum of £1992 claimed by Dorries funds the blog in some way, in terms of webhosting if nothing else.

But should there be such worry about her blog. She has removed the 'offending' logo and so made good the problems identified. There is a more important point here though. Opponents are making a fuss about her blog, but it could well fulfill the potential Straw claims that the communication allowance has. Her blog posts mix information about her role, her politics, comments on public affairs and her own, sometimes off-the-wall, observations on the world. All of this says a lot about Dorries the person, the MP and her party in essence. The rules delineate between campaigning and informing, but in effect the boundary is too blurred to be of use. While an MP may use a range of communication tools to explain what they do, a by-product of that is saying I am very active so, if you are a constituent, you should re-elect me. Equally, while it would be easier for all MPs who wish to blog to join a free site, actually the set up cost is the main expenditure. After that does it mean it is owned by the public for the site's entire existence or just for the year it was paid for.

What seems to be forgotten by the rule makers, but also by all of those who complain at breaches of rules, is that we live in an age of permanent campaigning. The Lib Dem Focus newsletter, Labour's Rose and Conservative MP's mailouts have a very clear campaigning function: the promote the activities of the MP, councillors and the party. So how do you say you cannot do any campaigning, how do you draw the boundaries between informing and campaigning, and is it relevant to do so anymore?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Brown's Speech 2008

I usually watch the speeches, think of ideas, and then try and compose a comment after if I have time. Today I thought I would do something different and live blog it. Not to have a large amount of comments but to build an ongoing narrative and see how that dovetails with the bits picked out by commentators. If you are interested in the full commentary see the link below.

The weight of expectation

It is hard to imagine the pressure Gordon Brown must be feeling as he prepares for his speech. The media today have ramped this up. The Sun states: “This must be a landmark address. It must stamp his authority as leader of this nation and reassure terrified voters they are in safe hands.” The Times dub it: “the speech of his life”. There is already a link to the speech on the website, but currently it is circular taking the visitor back to the Conference home page, but the hint is in the title 'Fair Chance and Fair Rules'. This suggests it will be aimed at the core Labour members, supporters and voters. But it will not be judged by the objectives set by Brown or his strategists but by expectations of journalists, the audience members they choose to fit their narrative and by the audience themselves whose expectations will be influenced by the media. Would anyone else really want to be PM?

What's in a name

After some form of voting, the Conservative party have launched their blog: its name is THE BLUE BLOG - mmm. Content could be interesting: "The blog will start with a bang at this year's Conference, where we will be bringing you backstage news and views from David Cameron, the Shadow Cabinet, MPs, delegates and the occasional guest." Given the twittering of LibDems and the comparative silence from Labour, the Conservatives had to do something to maintain their status as the party most embracing technology (at the top level that is) and innovating. Not sure if this is simply a relaunch of WebCameron as that gets little media attention, an attempt to gain more interest in their e-communication, or something genuinely different. There is no link as yet, not even a holding page, their website does not advertise it but, as in the manner of modern politics, puts Brown and Darling centre-stage (right). Let's hope the Blue Blog will offer a more positive message about the party itself rather than attacks on opponents. The one problem, extrapolating from polls, Cameron has is that he is seen as better than Brown but there is little wide knowledge about his or the party's policies. A similar situation saw Neil Kinnock versus John Major, Major was then seen as the safer pair of hands. Perhaps the Blue Blog can get more policy out there as the media may not be doing Brown any favours at all but neither are they giving Cameron a platform.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Very Personal

"He is an effing awful PM. And you should be able to tell the truth in Parliament. When it comes to political communication, Brown is just so bad at it. And, let's face it, the ability to communicate ideas is a pretty important part of being PM. He needs to explain what's going on in the world, and he fails, dismally. Do I hate the man? I certainly stand by everything I've said about him."

The words of Shadow Chancellor George Osborne talking about Gordon Brown. Will saying he is "effing awful" give hime the appearance of giving voice to the public mood, after all it is the sort of thing the eponymous 'man in the street' may say, albeit one that is perhaps ill-informed? Alternatively will it make him appear to be making a personal attack without criticising Brown's politics, so just attacking for the sake of attacking? I think the one very true fact Osborne identifies is that Brown is bad at communication, but hinting he hates him may be a mistake.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Odd Attacks and Interesting Data

A poll published by the Indepedent which shows Gordon Brown as almost the most unpopular cabinet member and that 54% of Labour activists would prefer someone else to be leader has received a lot of publicity as well as scathing attacks on the Ministry of Truth blog and Iain Dale's Diary. MoT's attack on LabourHome notwithstanding, the basis for dispute is "the poll had been commissioned by the Indy... where’s the demographic information that pollsters collect as standard in order to balance their polls and ensure their statistical validity and what’s the margin of error on the numbers......" Well it is not unusual for media organisations to commission polls and not state the fact, even when it is the phone in poll, and the article does say "an exclusive poll for The Independent". But the main problem is validity, but it was an online poll of an audience that is largely unknown. The invitation was to "With the Westminster Villiage obsessed with the question of leadership of the Labour Party, we thought it's time to find out what the grassroots thinks. Click here to take part in the Labour Grassroots Survey and we'll publish the results in the first days of Labour Party Conference." So the respondents, from a total population of unknown numbers, could be non-average (unrepresentative) just because the link was only there for a matter of days. There were 788 members, all of whom must have been checked to see if they were supporters as "Non Labour supporters who responded to the survey were stripped from the results" though this may have still been skewed by opponents claiming to be supporters. However, a serious question is how you get to the engaged and active supporters of a party. Chances are, in the digital age, they are online and accessing party communication and taking part in social networks. But is it really so wrong to do a poll online? It is impossible to offer the normal caveats or statistics beyond the number of respondents, and perhaps The Independent should have stated how it was conducted, and yes sponsorship should have been mentioned by Labourhome in the link as perhaps some supporters were a little too honest (though it does say data will be published), but are all the attacks really justified and why are the opposition attacking when really it is better for them and for Labour. As I understand it, Labourhome is independent of the party leadership and perhaps the one place where inconvenient truths can be aired, such things should be read by the party leaders as it may jsut enhance the connection between the party and their foot soldiers. For PR purposes, and if I was advising Brown, I would face this head on in the speech this week!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Call me suspicious

So the latest on the Michael Palin for President is a hard sell on 'Campaign Iconography' for the 'Silly Campaign', Buttons are $5.99, the thong $12.99. Now where is this money going, to Michael Palin or perhaps would this be to Barack Obama. If the latter, however indirect, is this not a little bit cynical? And if revealed would this not damage his 'peoples' campaign'? And further, do they have copyright (or does Michael for that matter) for his image?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Has Rove changed sides?

Karl Rove, the man dubbed Bush's brain due to his role in masterminding his communication strategy, has given Obama an open goal in his fight against McCain. He is quoted as stating "McCain has gone in some of his ads -- simply gone one step too far, and sort of attributing to Obama things that are, you know, beyond the '100 percent truth' test." This, said to Fox News has been widely quoted in the media and across the web already, particularly it has been circulated by Obama's team to reinforce the case to suggest McCain is running: "the sleaziest, most dishonest campaign in history". But Rove actually makes an important point to both candidates, negativity is being relied upon too much and both candidates run the risk of turning voters off. I commented to a colleague last week that I am surprised there is not a deep sense of election boredom setting in across the US, after all it seems to have been running for a year already and is just getting more intense. Rove's argument actually makes a lot of sense, but will either side listen?

The Grassroots Activist or the High Profile Celeb?

It is interesting to find out which is better. Whether a high profile in the mass media or a simple grassroots campaign to activists backed by an online campaign will get someone elected. Well there is an experiment going on it seems. The campaign to be Liberal Democrat president. The most high profile contender is Lembit Opik, famous for his predictions that Asteroids will destroy the earth, for his relationships with a Weather Girl and a Cheeky Girl and most recently for being the advocate of the Segway. I cannot find a personal website for him across four pages of Google results but there are loads for News of the World stories, Hello Magazine etc etc. So he is well known and one could suggest he would have some support.

His opponent is Ros Scott, member of the House of Lords and a grassroots campaigner. She has a great website 'I'm 4 Ros', has a regularly updated blog 'Because Baronesses are people too' and has spent a lot of time courting activists in the local party associations. She has no significant public profile, but she may be considered the more serious politician.

But here is the question. The majority of electors are ordinary members, not the activists that Scott would have been meeting, they will be aware of Opik from numerous media appearances. So who will win and why?

What's in a name

The Conservatives invite votes on the name for their new blog, the choices are pared down from thousands of suggestions to:
The Blue Room
The Blue Blog
Speakers' Corner
Out of the Blue
Voting ends Wednesday at midday. Why go to this trouble, if nothing else it gives a sense of co-ownership and offers the perception that the party does not have the objective of controlling the blog. It has been argued that parties return to a default position of control when designing online content, this gives an impression they will not. However that will be proven by the content itself, however at this stage it gets people involved and that is something every party needs.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A lack of strategy

In the current age of professionalised political communication, what is expected to be central to communication is strategic thinking at the macro level. Is Downing Street and Gordon Brown's problem a lack of strategy resulting from the high and quick turnover at the highest level in his short time as prime minister. PR Week today highlights that there are four key vacancies at No 10: Communications Advisor; Chief Press Officer; Head of the Strategic Communications Unit; and Chief Speechwriter. Now one can say these are peripheral roles and what is important is political decision making and not communication strategy. However, if there is no-one considering how to communicate policy, or possibly even to pick up flaws in the decisions that impact on communication (how can we sell the unsellable), then it may explain the strategic failures that seem endemic in policy announcements. With a conference in days and a general election in eighteen months this could a the critical failure in strategic thinking!

it's not about Michael really

So, on the Michael Palin viral video, today I have received the first email from the Michael Palin for President Campaign. I noted that some thought it was a promotional thing for Palin, and the email makes references to all things Python: ENGAGE IN SOCIAL DEBATE by rubbing Fuzzy Things on Republicans. ENGAGE IN CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE by doing Silly Walks in government buildings. But at it's heart it is a pro-Democrat, and for all we know Obama team created, campaign. The killer is the very strange bit that claims as evidence that "Apparently we've hit a nerve". After talking of it being featured on Obama's website the email claims: "Of course the opposition has been heard from as well, offering such insightful and considered political discourse as "If you have a child, I hope he dies in a car fire!" and "F--k your video and f--k you!". I kind of hope if these lines are true reflections of opposition responses then the authors are in no way connected to the campaigns of McCain or Palin. They claim the video has been watched by more than 200,000 people, though it is a couple of thousand less on their Youtube channel.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Citizen Endorsements

What is the most influential persuasion, an endorsement from someone we know. It still remains the case that many people are influenced far more by their parents and peers than any highly expensive communication strategy. The second most influential persuasion is supposedly, and say supposedly because it is based on theory and sporadic bits of research, is an endorsement from someone like ourselves. Therefore we may consider ourselves as members of social groups and so wish to be close to that group and so adjust our behaviour and attitudes to match members of that group: for social group this is identifiers rather than simple demographics, employment, but for example for me real ale lovers may be a group I wish to assimilate with and so adopt more broader commonalities with the members of the group (I shall resist a beard and woolly jumper though!).

So where is this going, well advertisers have long used the 'ordinary person' to endorse a product; I question whether anyone believes they are anything but an actor. Obama, very powerfully I think, used videos made by 'members of his movement' that endorsed him as then democratic candidate. The Conservative Party will attempt to replicate this. In their e-newsletter they state "We want to build a collection of short video clips with people explaining why they're Conservative". While the party perhaps do not need to worry about public support at the moment, the fear for any challenger is that the waverers among the electorate will worry about inexperience (one factor that led to Kinnock's defeat in 1992 despite looking like the winner in polls) and switch to the incumbent. The montage of endorsements should include a cross-section of voters and so could, if publicised right, be something that can be used to bolster support. The idea is that 'if Mr X, real ale lover from Cornwall is willing to back the Conservatives then I might trust them as well', theoretically it is a powerful persuasive tool!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Unique selling point?

Can one steal a USP, is it too obvious a theft or can the McCain-Palin team establish themselves as the team most able to deliver the sort of change the undecided voters in swing states want?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Good example of a viral campaign

Though this is probably is the creation of a pro-Democrat/Obama group, this is sort of satire that can have a real impact. The simple message is that if Sarah Palin is a suitable candidate for Vice-President of the USA then so is anybody.

In three days it has had over 25,000 views and is becoming viral (I received it five times on Facebook today). There is a website for this 'campaign' also, if you sign up you get a free 'fuzzy thing', here is mine. I presume that the emails will be collected and there will be a more sustained anti-Palin campaign by email over the next few months. I await the bombardment. However, clever stuff. Very Palin-esque (Pythonesque perhaps), a simple message wrapped in comedy that will be enjoyed by many in the intended audience of semi-intellectual floating voters, the humorous message guarantees the video gaining views but not just via Youtube but via its homepage, this allows the collection of email addresses and the directing of a campaign to those who are susceptible to anti-Palin arguments. This demonstrates the ease of campaigning as facilitated by the Internet.

Good advise for who?

It appears on face value to be rather odd for an opposition leader, or the leader of any political party really, to comment or advise on the problems being faced by one of their opponents. Today's article in the Sunday Telegraph by David Cameron seems to do just that: “If Labour do get rid of Gordon Brown they cannot possibly get away with not holding an election. It would be quite outrageous to have two unelected PMs foisted on us one after the other. In my party we are prepared for that eventuality. We’ve had meetings of our general election planning committee. So I say to the Labour Party, the Foreign Secretary and everyone included – make up your mind – back the guy or sack the guy. Behaving as you are for the moment is bad for the country.” None of this is in any way new, many commentators have stated that a general election must be held if Brown is replaced, equally the back or sack argument has been voiced by many. But Cameron's final argument could be suggested to defend Brown's position.

However, there is a lot of sense to this statement. Firstly it positions Cameron as statesmanlike looking at what is best for the country as opposed to the divided Labour Party who are inwardly focused and perhaps focused on personal and not national advancement. Secondly the last thing Cameron wants is a short run up to an election with a new leader who may, though it is far from guaranteed, gain a bounce or honeymoon period as Major did in 1991/2 and Brown all that time ago (it seems). Therefore it is reasonable to suggest Cameron wants the leadership battle to be over if it is going to happen at all and hope any new leader would try and hold out to 2010 when an election must be held. The final aspect to this, and perhaps is rather cynical, is that Brown is a far easier opponent given his current poor standing in the polls. He seems to be almost universally perceived as a weak performer and perhaps a poor leader. But will Cameron's advise be heeded? Well if Labour strategists and machinators read the article they may think the same way as me but also try to assess what the best option is, carry on with Brown and hope things get better, replace him and run the risk of losing all support due to not having an election while also finding the new leader cannot reverse fortunes, or simple resign themselves to defeat and hope Cameron will be a one-term wonder and they can get a new leader to replace him by 2015. Don't look at me for an answer, public opinion is far too fickle to predict and the media will play a huge role in determining the fortunes of any of the party leaders, there are lots of risks but currently it seems Cameron faces few prior to the next general election being called.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Strange Strategy

So it is all happening in America, and though on holiday for the bulk of the last couple of weeks it has been interesting to observe. I am still thinking about McCain's VP, and what I think about the choice, but noted one bit of news about the rival groups' advertising campaigns. Michigan is a key state, and one that is suffering from the economic downturn, so one would perhaps think they would want to hear positive messages about recovery. They probably do but they are not to be served any. Michigan Live reports that the McCain ad will focus on criticising Obama's opposition to offshore drilling; and in a similar vein Obama is showing McCain and Bush and criticising them for being out of touch when they say the fundamentals of the economy are strong.
There is perhaps nothing unusual about the fact that the ads of candidates will feature the opponent to a greater extent than the sponsor, it seems too common. It is founded on the belief that if you can raise doubt in an audience, expressing a doubt that the audience may already harbour, it will build that doubt and tarnish the image of the candidate under attack. The problem seems to me to be that the voters in the US are going to have significant doubts about all the candidates (Ps and VPs) by election time, some justified some maybe not, and in the end be led to seek the least worst team as opposed to the one that is best.