Lessons in innovation for political communications - what role for social?

Lessons in innovation for political communications – what role for social?

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One of the films nominated for best foreign language films at the 2013 Oscars is a story of politics and advertising. ‘No’, tells the story of the 1988 plebiscite of the Chilean citizenry over whether general Pinochet should have another 8 year term as President. But really it is the story of innovation in advertising and political communication.

In the film, as in real life, the No campaign’s victory is supported by an advertising campaign that challenges tradition at the time. It uses music and imagery in a way different to advertising in Chile at the time and, critically, differently to the adverts from the Yes campaign. Much can be made of this innovation but the successful campaign was the one that used new techniques and developments to convey their message to people in new ways.

The 1988 Plebiscite in Chile was a pivotal moment of huge political important – bringing an end to 15 years of dictatorship – and perhaps such innovation was driven from the critical nature of the vote.

Or perhaps such innovation was fuelled by consumer and technological trends that were ripe to be taken advantage of.

Throughout the film, and reading the real story, I was left with a thought: what role could social have played in that? We have seen many examples of social being used to effect societal change – most notably in the Arab Spring. But the use of social media in formal political communications is ripe for innovation.

What we do see is good – getting candidates and politicians to talk directly to the public, spreading campaign messages, organising events. But there is more that could be done and real innovation opportunities out there.

Some areas ripe for such innovation could include:

  1. Encourage micro-communities: Social media is strongest, from a communications perspective, when it is used to allow people with similar interests or connections to connect. For many voters, politics is about an individual patchwork of issues that they care about – some big and some very small. Developing an ecosystem of communities would allow any political party to engage the public across these issues and allow them to engage with the part on a mix of topics that is bespoke to what they are interested in. Very simply this could be achieved with a control panel on Facebook not dissimilar to that used by the BBC. But this could develop to allow campaigners to run micro-communities where they talk to people about issues they really care about – even offering a real way for supporters to campaign digitally rather than in person.
  2. Moving beyond listening and monitoring: Using social to help understand what voters really care about and what they really talk about. Moving beyond social media listening to proper semantic analysis to understand the issues voters associate with each other in their natural language. And then using this analysis to inform conversations, speeches and all communications materials. A systematic approach of analysing conversations and using this analysis to drive communications strategies.
  3. Engaging (only) where we can have biggest impact: It is neither practical, nor often desirable, to engage in every conversation relevant to us in social. The temptation, and indeed the danger, can be to engage with the same people endlessly – either because we know they agree with us or that they disagree with us. More profitable would be to systematically analyse conversations to know where an intervention can have biggest impact, and where one is not needed. This is complicated and requires systematic analysis of conversations in social and what happens as these conversations develop. But overall we should shift from engaging with individuals who look ‘influential’ to conversations and places where a timely intervention can change opinions.

Overall, it is not that the way social media is being used in political communication is bad – there is some great activity out there. It is more that it is time to move on from using it to support and augment more traditional communications strategies and to innovate in ways that could bring transformative change to the way we campaign and influence.