Sunday, September 5, 2010

More Art Than Science: New Media Advocacy

There are a lot of media and public relations firms marketing themselves as new media experts to political candidates, corporations, non-profits and trade/business associations. A lot of these firms are finding the market to be profitable. Businesses, non-profits, associations and political campaigns, however, are attempting to quantify the value received from these investments. Anyone who has studied or participated in this evolving field recognizes the significant challenges inherent in specifically quantifying the benefits utilizing traditional business measuring sticks.

Regardless of the ability to accurately measure the value of activity in the new media marketplace, organizations are beginning to understand that they risk being left behind if they do not at least begin to dip their proverbial big toe into the new media waters. I have the benefit of working with clients on efforts unrelated to their new media efforts and working with clients directly and specifically related to new media efforts. That experience includes using or observing efforts related to direct candidate committees in a political campaign, third party political campaigns, and issue advocacy from a political and corporate perspective.

It's fascinating. There are a lot of tools available to assist such efforts. At the end of the day, the tools are merely that -- tools that assist thoughtful human efforts to accomplish real human interaction, foster relationships and build a distribution network for relevant information. There is no magic program that will compensate for deliberate, thoughtful and artistic human activity. In my most recent endeavors into this arena, I have directly participated and helped construct a successful political venture in new media. We had an engaging and exciting candidate. The candidate was willing and interested in being personally engaged in all aspects of new media and truly believed it was an important endeavor. Likewise, limited financial resources forced us to seriously focus efforts on new media activities.

By successfully utilizing Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, blogs, websites and online radio, we were able to both develop a body of material to share and the means to distribute that information to an interested public. The successful utilization of online tools such as these do not generally or significantly lead to votes. While the number of voters who are actively engaged in each of those networks is growing, that in and of itself is generally not enough to win an election. It is, however, an excellent tool to provide exposure of a candidate to national and local media and to expose a candidate to opinion makers and shapers who can make a difference in a myriad of ways.

There is no one way to do it. Every candidate, every campaign and every situation is different. And the media is changing as fast as you're reading right now. Just think how much Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube changed since the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Were you even on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube in 2008? I'm guessing many of you were not. Some of you still aren't. And MySpace and MeetUp which played roles earlier have essentially disappeared. And there are dozens of other services that impact the ability to effectively distribute information and create networks. It will change even more by 2012. If anyone suggests they have it all completely mastered today, new developments are already making them liars tomorrow.

For comparison's sake, I observed the new media effort of a corporate client with which I was not involved (my activities on behalf of this client are not related to their new media efforts). A wise friend once pointed out that cute, cuddly puppies don't need lobbyists. It fits this client as they are representative of an industry that is often vilified. This client attempts to advocate for or against specific public policies, but it is handicapped by its unpopularity. We have significant challenges in attempting to convince the general public to adopt our policy positions, but we have experienced remarkable successes despite those challenges. Like I wrote earlier, every situation, candidate and effort, is different.

In this instance, the client has a website and a twitter identity expressly labeled with the largely unpopular cause. I believe that those two components are absolutely essential to the effort. It's honest and straightforward, but should be enhanced by being simply a part of a larger, more comprehensive effort. If I were directing this program for the client, I would suggest a number of approaches. First of all, I would create or become involved with one or more third-party advocacy groups that can more broadly make policy arguments without being dismissed out of hand as an unpopular messenger. Secondly, I would inventory all the third-party groups with whom the organization already enjoys relationships and connect the new media efforts of those groups with the company's effort. Thirdly, I would create Facebook groups, create an appropriately broad twitter presence, integrate all of the above together and begin cultivating networks and developing relationships with interested individuals before they are needed to specifically impact public policy. Online radio, YouTube, websites, use of existing blogs and creation of new blogs could all be a part of this network. It's not happening.

I give immense credit to this organization for having the foresight to begin the process of entering the world of new media. That is the first step and it's a critical step. But when this organization audits their investment into this new venture, determines how much they are spending and attempts to quantify the benefits they are receiving, they may be disappointed. One can only hope that the company recognizes not that the decision to invest in new media and online issue advocacy was a bad investment. Rather, the decision demonstrates proactive effort and foresight. Companies like this one just need to change how how they invest in such a program. Increasingly, organizations are learning that firms which claim they've got a perfect program or complete mastery of this universe are selling a bill of goods.

Bring me five different entities such as an individual candidate for office, an independent expenditure organization attempting to influence several campaigns, an industry association fighting for or against specific policy campaigns, a non-profit issue-oriented campaign and an individual corporation attempting to protect and promote its interests and you will have five very different campaigns. Give me five examples of any of one of those different categories and you will have five extremely different situations with different needs. And every one of those situations evolves over time. Some efforts will unexpectedly gain traction. Others, disappointingly, will not. And all of it occurs in a new media environment with new players and changing rules from week to week. Understanding the challenges and devising a strategies to confront them requires significant knowledge and experience in a variety of disciplines. It's also a lot more art than it is science.


  1. I agree that firms may not be held to what they should be delivering on and that social media can be more of a science. I suppose companies will drop those firms but I cant see them making any public adittance that they hired the wrong people to do the job. Beau in Social Media

  2. It can certainly be a science and is increasingly so becoming one. However, businesses (and legislators for that matter) often want to rely on any numbers/analytics they have, regardless of how inappropriate the numbers may be.

    You're right that most don't publicly (or privately) admit they've made mistakes. I would suggest, however, that those who are most capable in this field are those from low-budget campaigns who were left to rely almost exclusively on these tools for messaging. Anyone who relies on there experience of two years ago is relying on experience that is already obsolete.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!!



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