27 May 2008

Why Campaigning Will Never Be the Same - Social Media and a Bad Friday

The Friday afternoon before a long weekend has traditionally been the time that a government, a business, or a political campaign decides to "take out the trash," i.e., release embarrassing information that simply has to be released. The theory is nobody's paying attention, and until now that's typically been the case.

Last Friday demonstrated, in the age of social media and live internet streams, that's no longer the case. That's when a fatigued and frustrated Senator Clinton went to an editorial board meeting at a South Dakota newspaper and re-hashed an ill-conceived and politically and culturally tone-deaf talking point intended to justify continuing her campaign:
My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. I don't understand it.
Of course she's not saying she's in the race because something terrible could happen to the presumptive nominee - she's saying that June is not all that late if you put this race in the context of history. But this is a poor talking point at best - President Clinton had the race wrapped up two months earlier and the "wrap-up" was mere formality. The Dukakis nomination would probably be a better example of what she meant. And let's face it - given our nation's history on racial issues, raising the specter of assassination when running against an African-American candidate, no matter where you are in the campaign, is not something I'd advise a candidate to do. (Frankly, I'd take the word "assassinated" of the table altogether.)

Not surprisingly, the media pounced on the comments and made it the outrage du jour.

But here's the kicker - the New York Post reported on the flub before the press corps traveling with the Clinton campaign did. In fact, the Post reported on it even before the South Dakota paper did - because the Post was watching the live internet stream of the editorial board meeting.

Today's communications technology is so inexpensive it allows relatively small newspapers like the Sioux Falls Argus Leader to broadcast events live. All you need is a webcam, some software, a laptop, and a broadband internet connection. So that's what the Argus Leader did.

The New York Times' Caucus Blog has a very interesting post-mortem on the day:

Mrs. Clinton had three events. First was a meeting with the editorial board of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, which was live-streaming the interview, something a few newspapers just started doing in this election cycle.

The press corps, meanwhile, was on a bus from the airport to Brandon, a few miles away, to set up for her second event at a supermarket. (The media are sometimes in a different place from the candidate, usually when the event is private or small.)

Her interview began while we were on the bus, but Internet access was so poor, we could only pick up bits of her comments intermittently. We did hear her bat back reports that her campaign had made overtures to Senator Barack Obama’s campaign about some kind of deal for her to exit the race.

At the supermarket, we were ensconced in a café off the deli counter, where many reporters were writing about her denying the overtures while also trying to follow the live stream. Here, too, Internet access was spotty and the stream came over in choppy bursts.

Mrs. Clinton arrived from the newspaper in the midst of this, and began addressing a couple of hundred people who were seated adjacent to us, in the fresh produce section. Then our cell phones and Blackberries went off.

On the other end were editors who had seen a Drudge Report link to a New York Post item online. The Post was not with the traveling press _ and apparently had a decent Internet connection.

The Caucus blog mentions Drudge but doesn't do justice to how quickly the news spread, despite the press corps' relative isolation and the Friday-before-a-long-weekend phenomenon. Thousands upon thousands of people learned about the flub through social media channels. For me it was when all of the political people I follow on Twitter reacted with shock - making Twitter's already bad day get a little worse, I think.

There's no question the Clinton campaign was caught flat-footed on this one. After all, while perhaps an eyebrow or two was raised when Clinton recited the talking point back in March there wasn't anything close to this reaction. Social media helped whip this up into a frenzy, prompting melodramatic "special comments" and descriptions of "implosion" from snarky pundits.

True to form, the Clinton campaign is in overdrive trying to work through this latest error with typical tactics like blaming their opponent while some members of the "mainstream" punditry are apparently showing their true colors. (THAT'S the comment that truly deserves scorn.) We're essentially returning to business as usual, but the damage is done - and the Clinton campaign's protestations to the contrary, Senator Clinton's candidacy remains a longshot hope at best.

So what does this mean for campaigns in the future?

First, it means the "online team" on a campaign just got a lot more important. 2008 will be remembered as the year that the Internet drove not only the bulk of political fundraising, but carried the most effective (or damaging) campaign communication as well.

It means the people running those online divisions have to be involved in the larger strategy discussions of the campaign, because they're the ones who will be responsible for managing and distributing a campaign's message. It also means the people running the "mainstream" media operations in campaigns will have to learn all about social media tools and internet technology - as we can see, the MSM is using the 'net too.

It means campaigns must stop dismissing bloggers with a "they're not journalists" and a wave of the hand. The people currently fanning the flames on this latest gaffe aren't journalists, but they're having an enormous impact. Ignore social media mavens at your own peril.

It means campaigns have to invest in more sophisticated online monitoring systems. A Google alert isn't going to cut it anymore. Google doesn't look at Twitter or Friendfeed or Seesmic. More political conversations are happening there, and those conversations matter.

It also means that campaigns are going to have to spend some meaningful cash on ads in social media. Eyeballs - or more appropriately, well-educated and politically-engaged eyeballs - will be focused on newspaper a little less, blogs a little more.

It should surprise no one that the almost certain winner of the Democratic nomination for President embraced social media early and continues to use it well, while the losing campaign essentially defends against social media. We'll see much more of this in future campaigns.

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