Recently the White House released a photo of President Obama in the Oval Office in a telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin.
Then Number 10 released a similar image of Prime Minister David Cameron on the phone to President Obama.
Within hours, the image of Cameron had been mocked and parodied by a range of celebrities on Twitter and had spawned a huge volume of content that achieved precisely the opposite effect that whoever was responsible for the Tweet intended.
It’s not as if social media is a new phenomenon.
The 2010 general election was, after all, billed as the first ‘social media election’ in the United Kingdom.
There were a number of milestones for digital in the 2010 general election; from the major parties using social networking to identify and activate supporters to the traditional media embracing social as an essential component of sourcing, shaping and delivering news.
And as we move toward the 2015 general election, the importance of digital and social media to the parties, to voters, and of course to public affairs practitioners who want to leverage the latest techniques for their organisation or client, is increasing rapidly.
More unexpectedly perhaps, ill-advised Tweeting aside, there are signs that the political parties are beginning to understand the scale of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead of them in digital.
The numbers that underpin those opportunities are clear.
Digital Public Affairs and the Numbers
According to 2013 data from Experian, for every hour British people spend online, thirteen minutes are spent on social media properties.
That’s more than on shopping, reading emails, or browsing news websites.
The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that of American adults who use social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter, 28% have shared political news on their social networks for friends and family to read.
The cold, hard cash is there for the taking online too.
In America in 2012, 23% of donors made online-only contributions.
In the UK, the Liberal Democrats are making two membership and fundraising hires at their Great George Street HQ which have a strong digital element, reflecting the importance of digital to both member engagement and fundraising for modern political parties.
In November 2013, Labour’s election co-ordinator Douglas Alexander MP told the Guardian that:
“The reality is that newspaper sales are falling, viewership of the 10 o’clock news, so people-to-people conversation has never been more important. Indeed it is priceless… In an environment of low trust, people look to friends, families and neighbours for trusted opinions on politics and much else. We think Labour’s community organisation will allow us to dominate that critical conversation”
It’s an interesting choice of words – how often do you actually listen to people who try to ‘dominate’ a conversation – and one that certainly illustrates the key challenge for political parties in social media identified by Carl Miller, Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) at Demos:
“One of the great changes in political parties over the last twenty years has been the increased focus on message discipline. That is very difficult when it comes to social media. Social is un-hierarchical, political parties are hierarchical – that is the direct tension we have here.”
And it isn’t only the political parties who should be paying attention to the shift away from traditional media.
The Conversation Conversion
According to Rob Blackie, Director of Social at Ogilvy One, there are a number of changes since the last election that public affairs practitioners should be paying close attention to.
He says that the range of relatively complex tasks people are comfortable performing online has greatly increased since the last election, as has the sheer amount of time the average internet user in the UK spends online. In addition, smartphones have gone from relatively niche to completely mainstream. “This means a lot more conversations online, on a mass scale.”
Second, he argues that the public is much more willing and able to ‘fact-check’ claims made by politicians and lobbyists alike.
“The public is much more intelligent [in consuming news] than it was ten years ago… and the need for simplification of messaging is therefore much reduced. The danger for the political class is that it acts as if we were ten years in the past and is willing to put forward misleading information that will come back to bite it very rapidly online.”
Finally, Blackie notes the rapid shifts of influence away from the traditional media in the UK – citing the example of campaigning organisation 38 Degrees.
“38 Degrees has two million members who are email subscribers. How many media outlets can guarantee they will get a message read by half a million people over three days? Traditional media isn’t absolutely necessary anymore to disseminate a message.”
Steffen Thejll-Moller, Director at FleishmanHillard and specialist in digital public affairs, agrees that the changing digital landscape has real impact on the work of lobbyists:
“Organisations are under far more scrutiny than ever; and digital and social means everyone can be an activist, while protest groups can protest with greater ease. This balances the playing field and we should applaud it, although it does admittedly complicate the life of the PA professional.”
Thejll-Moller also has a clear sense that those in public affairs and policy who fail to adapt to the new landscape risk:
“…missing out in areas where digital and social can make their lives easier and their work more impactful such as intelligence gathering, information delivery and mobilisation. All information is online, and all stakeholders use the web in some shape or form: to ignore it completely verges on malpractice.”
It’s a stark message for anyone interesting in communicating a message to political stakeholders or the public – the traditional sources of influence have been weakened and the standards of proof and authenticity required in public debate have been raised.
In a world where a Tweet from Stephen Fry can generate half a million website visits, it’s plain that the techniques for getting a message heard have changed. It’s also clear that the fundamentals of authentic, timely communication haven’t changed.