When Gordon Brown shot the starting gun on the election last week, there were many questions and few answers surrounding the campaign, as Paul Lindsell, our managing director, noted in his blog.
One talking point that has emerged so far is that just about everyone involved in the UK election industry – you know, those politicians, party activists, journalists, PRs, ad agency mad men, pollsters, quiz-show comedians and assorted pundits who live for the big campaign – is beginning to wonder if this one will be unlike any other when it comes to media.
With many of the consultants who helped devise the strategy behind Barack Obama’s successful US presidential run – with its extensive use of social media and other online touch points – heading to the UK as election advisors, the British political machine finally appears ready to embrace the digital age.
Will that make a fundamental difference to the way election campaigns unfold in the UK? Not very likely.
Social media has become a kind of cure-all for whatever ails marketing programmes of all types – and political “brands” are no exception. The Conservatives have already made an early, near-disastrous foray into the world of social media with the Cash Gordon website launched on Twitter and Facebook. The aim was to embarrass Brown by exposing links to the Unite union, but the site ended up being hijacked by opponents of the Conservatives who used it to embarrass the Tories themselves by uploading swearing, porn, links to Labour websites and even Rick Astley videos.
This underlines the inherent risk to any brand – whether it is a political party, a corporation, a charity, a restaurant, a car, a laundry soap, or a biscuit – if it chooses to engage the public through social media: this opens a dialogue in a medium over which the organisation that started the conversation has very little control.
When political groups, companies, or other organisations start using social media to get a message across, it all too often smacks of GMOOT (“Get me one of those”) syndrome, as it has been dubbed in AdAge. This is the trend whereby someone senior in an organisation sees that someone else is using some type of social media and demands that those below him do the same – without thinking things through strategically.
Any organisation – especially a political party – has to weigh up the benefits and potential costs, and even dangers, of launching a campaign using social media. And digital activity still has to be part of a broader media campaign that unfolds and fits in with a wider strategy.
Social media might seem like a great way for a party like the Conservatives to make a connection with a younger demographic than they normally might, but it has already been shown that it can blow up in their faces. Would social media on its own enable David Cameron to connect with younger voters and finally get his chance to hug a hoodie – rather than be mocked by one? Don’t bet on it.
What you can bet on is that social media will play a part in the campaign – perhaps even a growing part as the run-up to election day progresses and the parties get a handle on digital – but television, newspapers, radio, doordrop brochures and good old-fashioned face-to-face campaigning will still all be big in the mix.
Cute tweets and virals may make for good water cooler chat and headlines but they won’t drive fundamental change – either in the political landscape or in business.