Recently I attended the Politics Online Conference put on by George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. Although I was only able to sit in on a handful of sessions, there were a number of very useful gems on how you can use social media to further political campaign goals. I’ve focused on the lessons most useful for public diplomacy campaigns.

One of the major themes of the conference is the necessity to create authentic engagement when using social media. Without creating this authenticity, it is much more difficult to influence the intended audience since there is little personal connection with the message. Many lobbyists regularly emphasized that a handful of authentic, personal messages from constituents are more convincing than a mass quantity of relatively anonymous messages. Furthermore, genuine engagement between two parties (in this case politicians and constituents) can help create lasting communities and movements centered around specific causes, even if the engagement is conducted online.

Ideally this authenticity is created through direct personal engagement, a local focus and a tangible result. One example given was a campaign to influence legislation covering local food producers. To highlight the importance of these producers in local constituencies, a lobbyist organization used an online campaign to help local producers deliver care packages of non-perishable goods to their representatives. By using web-based technologies to make the constituent’s concerns tangible, the lobbyists were able to influence the final legislation to greater benefit local producers.

Many of the presenters also cautioned that campaigns can’t simply present themselves as grassroots and authentic, without actually engaging real people in the effort. Web users have gotten increasingly sophisticated and can often easily spot fake campaigns (otherwise known as “astroturfing”, a play on real “grassroots”). If a fake campaign is spotted, the repercussions can be serious and severely damage the credibility of the sponsoring organization.

A few other tips I found useful:

  • If you can’t create your own parade, get in front of one. This was in response to a question asking if you didn’t have Obama, or a similarly motivational individual or cause, what can be done to get more attention to your campaign. One great suggestion was to track trends and get in front of ones that relate to your effort. This means it is important to track trends, such as through Twitter or Google, and see which ones are getting more attention. When adding related photos, Tweets, blog posts and so on, be sure to find out what tags are being used and label your content as such. For example, one of the sites I work on had put together a wealth of information on avian flu, pandemics, global health care and so on. While many of that was off the radar for many months, with the recent spread of H1N1, much of this content is now highly relevant to the global conversation on swine flu. As many have said before, “never waste a good crisis”.
  • No media works in a vacuum. In basically every media market, no single form of media functions without at least some relation to other types. Newspapers influence TV and vise versa, while a scandal might break on Twitter or Facebook before making it to the nightly news broadcast. As such, you have to consider all dominant (and perhaps some not so dominant) media channels in your engagement programs. Ideally, all media campaigns should have integrated components across many forms of media, each tailored to the medium’s specific requirements. It is no longer possible to see a campaign as strictly a TV commercial, since that commercial may be recorded on a mobile phone, reposted on YouTube and then shared via Twitter. For that same reason, it is also important to monitor a wide variety of media for mentions, even if there isn’t any specific engagement taking place in them.
  • Meeting in person is still – and always will be – the most influential type of engagement. It is far harder to be inauthentic, impersonal and non-transparent when meeting face to face. The sheer amount of information conveyed in the tone of a person’s voice, the way they present themselves and the messages they convey in the meeting makes personal connections far more moving than any other type of connection. As one presenter put it, “There is no substitute for a personal meeting with a member of congress.”

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