As you’ve probably noticed, my work in digital public affairs has me more interested in politics, public policy and the role of digital tools in the communication ecosystem. It also helps that a lot of people with whom I work have strong ties to the political world and the key players in it. This makes for fascinating discussions on political applications of social media and other digital channels for campaigning, network building and ongoing engagement with constituencies of support.

I had a particularly interesting conversation last night with some colleagues during a two hour (plus) road trip. One colleague shared that based on her experience as a campaign manager and her intention to continue to act as one, she would not allow her candidate to use Twitter, Facebook or other digital channels to engage with the public. Her core argument is that the candidate can’t afford to — that too many mistakes are made in the digital world that can ruin a campaign.

I believe that as the communication ecosystem evolves and traditional media channels have become more marginalized, digital has become a more integrated component of successful communication (including traditional media which is reinventing themselves through digital). Note that I said digital is part of the ecosystem. That means digital needs to be an integral part of the strategy rather than a tactical adjunct to it.

There are many reason why politicians need to do what Mitch Joel calls “be the media”.

  • traditional media can’t or won’t always cover a candidate
  • politicians can’t control how traditional media will present them
  • politicians don’t need digital channels to create difficult situations (like here and here)

And the payoff…

  • increasingly, people are getting their information online — specifically from Google (and other search engines)

An effective communication strategy embraces owned media, social media and earned media in a way that makes it possible for people to find the valuable information they need when they need it to make informed decisions. A politician doesn’t need Twitter or Facebook as part of their strategy, but those services and others will most definitely help them by helping the public.

As part of their decision process, voters are increasingly likely to:

  • search for candidates by their riding name and affiliation
  • search for information about their candidates by name
  • read websites and blogs by and about the candidate and party
  • skim through comments on various relevant news and blog articles
  • read or skim the discussion in forums and social networking sites
  • seek out and watch videos (and skim any comments on them)
  • follow candidate microblogging activity

Basically, these tools shouldn’t be viewed by campaigns as intelligence gathering tools on the movements of their opponents. If your opponents are using the internet to feed the public and you’re not, you’re opponents will always remain one step ahead of you.

Don’t get me wrong, nothing will replace face time with the public through door-to-door canvassing, town hall meetings, public debates, community events, etc… Digital isn’t going to suddenly change the political landscape in the next election. However, social media is going to play an increasingly important role in how voters decide how they vote. In fact, digital played a very visible and unexpected role in the 2008 federal election when a Facebook group was credited for helping elect Edmonton Strathcona NDP candidate Linda Duncan by a small margin through vote swapping agreements based on trust between Canadian voters. Elections Canada ruled that the vote swapping agreements were legal because there was no exchange of money.

Politics has traditionally depended on a command-and-control communication environment and has remained so through the evolution of the internet to date. Talking points and messaging will always be a part of politics no matter which communication channels are used. Social media is poised to adapt this approach through authentic and personable relationships that people are becoming accustomed to — a kind of humanizing of politicians in the digital public eye.

Social media’s ability to help amplify individual voices and pitch-up the conversation on issues of importance changes the assertion about social media from “politicians can’t afford to” to “can politicians afford not to?”