Thursday, January 9, 2014

How a Candidate Can Own a Key Topic on Social Media

 The Three-Team Campaign Social Media PR Approach
(originally published in a shorter form in PR News, November, 2013)
 Ned Barnett

Author's Note:  I am an Advisory Board member at PR News, the leading public relations trade journal, and four times a year, I write major front-page articles to help public relations professionals improve their craft.  This blog is based on my most recent front-page article (I'm working on the next one now), but adapted for a political campaign.  

It may not be possible for a campaign to field three social networking/PR professionals, but if you consider how different members of your campaign staff can wear different hats, you'll see how to apply it to your campaign.
For the past decade, the blogosphere and the extended social media world has spawned a new and fresh cadre of political issue experts, men and women who have now transcended the Internet to become best-selling authors, convention keynoters and highly-paid campaign consultants.  In almost all cases, these individuals have used a series of well-defined steps to become, in the parlance of social media, “subject matter experts” and even visionary “thought leaders.”  Some early stand-out leaders include Howard Dean's Internet guru, Joe Trippe, who's online fund-raising tactics are worth emulating no matter what your political persuasion.
This once-intuitive process is now sufficiently well-established that steps needed to capture perceived leadership in a given topic area can be replicated as part of a more comprehensive campaign.  To do so, however, begin by really understanding the process.   
First, compare this online topic-dominating effort to the classic measurements of a political campaign's PR and advertising impact – reach and frequency.  Online success comes when the reach – the number of people contacted, and especially the number turned into followers or friends – reaches a critical mass of awareness. 
To do that, you must interact with those followers – in two distinct ways, creating content and engaging in on-line conversations – and do so with sufficient regularity to become a “name” in their minds ... and in their world.

It is also essential that a real person - usually and preferably the candidate, but there are rare exceptions (a candidate's spouse comes to mind if s/he is high-viz, as Hillary was in '92 and Michele was in '08) - is used as the public face on the effort.  In the world of social networking, "campaign" presences are not going to succeed.  Their very nature as impersonal non-persons defeats the whole concept of “social” media.   
Instead, that candidate must become the visible front for this ongoing effort.  However - and this might seem counter-intuitive, but that's how Social Networking works - the candidate should know that it’s not really about him or her – it’s about the campaign, and about turning that real person into an avatar, an image of the candidate that will create its own online reality.  In other words, we're talking about the difference between a candidate's image and the candidate's reality.  
For instance, I have an old friend who used to work on Al Gore's Senate staff, who SWEARS that Al is truly funny and a great guy to shoot pool and drink beer with.  Really!  And four years before, campaign insiders swore (after he lost) that Bob Dole is really a funny guy, too.  Uh, yeah. 

However, the reality in politics is every candidate has an "image" that must be maintained, or else.  In another and more current for-instance, Chris Christie is (as I write this) twisting slowly, slowly in the wind, because what his staff did with "Bridge-Gate" is at odds with his defender-of-the-people and hands-across-the-aisle get 'er done image.  I don't know what Christie's reality is, butwhat's going on now is certainly at odds with the image he wants to project and protect.  Realistically, this incident could kill his chances in 2016, even if he had nothing to do with it.  
In politics and the blogosphere, image IS reality.
This "image" candidate requires a few characteristics if he or she is to become seen as a subject matter expert or thought leader on a given subject, regardless of the facts-on-the-ground reality.  First, and most obviously, his or her background should lend itself to claims of credibility in the topic matter - if not, watch out!  When Al Gore (him again!) claimed to have created the Internet, that claim was literally "unbelievable" because he had no IT background, and no rational person would think a policy wonk could create the World Wide Web.  
 Next, the candidate must be able to present well on camera for YouTube – as well as in front of the public as a platform speaker. That's pretty much a given for candidates, but there is a difference between a slick 30-second ad and a credible YouTube video, which must look more honest and less "slick" or "produced."  Of course, the candidate must also be effective and credible when addressing the news media during interviews - more and more, Internet media, including Internet radio and Internet TV, are including live-recorded interviews, just like Fox or CNN.
In the social media world, the process of turning a candidate into a credible subject matter expert and as a visionary thought leader begins with “content.”   
This first involves creating and posting blogs and - when appropriate - comments on other bloggers’ blogs. However, it also includes creating and posting other written content, such as position papers or issue-oriented white papers. This should extend to eBooks as well, but that's a subject for another of my blogs.   
Next, because of the importance of YouTube in the online world, fresh content must include video blogs, video white board presentations on issues and even recorded Town Hall-format subject-specific webinars.   
To succeed, your candidate's on-topic content must be fresh, insightful, helpful and well-presented.  It must add value to both the ongoing political and online discussions of the topic or issue.  Finally, this content must be refreshed and updated with sufficient frequency to keep interested readers coming back for more.  
Online, a steady drumbeat of new and vibrant content is essential to success, and never more so than in a political campaign.
The second step involves “conversation” – primarily tweets, Facebook posts, Linkedin comments and activity on other social networking platforms.  The more platforms involved in the process, the more impact will be created.  However, with so many social networking platforms out there, the law of diminishing returns quickly kicks in.  If campaign paid or volunteer staff-time resources are limited, focus conversation efforts on the big three.
The conversation process humanizes the candidate, regardless of who really creates the conversational content.  This begins by posting insightful brief topical comments on Twitter and other sites, posts that are, in essence, “mini-content.” These are used to establish credibility and attract subject-matter followers.  Many of these posts can be pre-written, then – using one of the social media posting tools, such as Hootsuite – this mini-content can be scheduled for posting at times and dates in the future.
However, to truly humanize the candidate, posts must transcend the process of just adding content value. You can’t just talk to followers – you must talk with them as well.  These interactions with others must get into personal – or more accurate, seemingly personal - dimensions. 
To make it personal, and until the volume of feedback you get makes it impossible to create personal replies, interactions must involve a timely and original response to all feedback comments received on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.  Interactions also involve looking behind the curtain and exposing a bit of the candidate in a human sort of way.  However, these posts shouldn’t be truly and deeply personal. Instead, they should show a bit of insight into the man or woman behind the campaign avatar, the "image" candidate.

The perception of accessibility is the goal here – conversation turns the candidate into a living, breathing individual, one who can be trusted by followers and friends, one who creates the perception of real relationships and online (political) friendships.  
By providing meaningful and valuable content on a regular and frequent basis, and by entering into the social networking conversation as a distinctive and humanized source, your candidate can own a topic area. And because the Internet is so diverse, virtually any topic area is up for grabs - if you have something fresh and original to say.  No matter what your candidate does – no matter what area of expertise your candidate actually “owns” – the social media world is ready to entertain his or her bid for (political) leadership on any given subject.
To do this in an organized and professional fashion, create three campaign social networking PR teams (or their equivalent), each with a specific assignment.  These teams cover content creation, conversation and the promotion of the content, both online and off-line. 

The Content Team writes the blogs and the major blog comments, as well as the position papers, white papers and eBooks.  This team also creates the video component – video blogs, white board presentations and webinars.  Obviously, the candidate will be featured in these, but the content team creates the concepts.   
The content team must also create the promotional material – or at least promotional guidelines – that will be used by the Conversation Team to position each new piece of content on the various social networking platforms for maximum impact.   
The Content Team must also work with the candidate to make sure he or she becomes sufficiently well-versed in the subject matter to be able to represent each new and meaningful bit of content as his or her own.  
 Finally, this team must become a high-output production house for the creation of new and exciting material for the social media world on a regular and frequent basis.
The Conversation Team handles the ongoing social networking interactions that not only promote the new content online, but also serves to humanize the candidate.  This team will then create and post – in the candidate's name and "voice" – a regular and frequent stream of topical, along with the occasionally off-topic, comments that will provide a three-dimensional framework for those who ultimately follow or friend the candidate.   
The conversation team will also seek out other bloggers on the same topic, and post brief comments to their blogs – remembering that longer subject-matter comments will be written by the Content Team.  Because of the nature of the Internet, this conversation is and must be a 24-7 process – if possible (and of course it's only possible with national campaigns) it helps to have members of the Conversation Team located in different time zones to spread out the responses. 

Conversation is just as critical as credible content.  Without effectively humanizing the candidate, the whole effort will ultimately fail.

Finally, create a news media PR team.   
This team will create wire service and direct-to-the-media press releases about each of the key content posts, describing why they are important and providing links to that content. They will then follow them up with individual pitches to the top media targets.   
This is where most organized social media topic ownership efforts fall flat.  Don't let this happen to you, your candidate and your campaign.
To promote new content, most supposedly "savvy" social media political campaigners rely solely on postings online – on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and all the rest. 
Those online posts are absolutely necessary, but they are not sufficient.  
 BusinessWire-like press releases and direct media pitches to key targets will bring new followers to the content, rapidly expanding the impact of the entire campaign. 
However, in addition to press releases, the news media PR team will also seek out breaking news on the focus topic.  Then they will reach out to the news media, including – when appropriate – talk radio and cable news or cable business news. To these news media, they will present the candidate as a blog-published expert on the topic who can put the breaking news into perspective for the media’s various audiences. In this way, even an off-year Congressional dark-horse candidate can garner important press coverage - because he or she has something important and new to say on a breaking news issue.
In pitching to the media on breaking news, the team will cite your recent blogs or other content that demonstrates the candidate's expertise about the breaking news topic.  
In 2008 I proved this process.  First I published a series of topical articles on breaking political news at the highly-credible American Thinker. Then I pitched Neil Cavuto, and wound up getting on five of his programs as a subject matter expert on topics ranging from McCain's failed campaign fund-raising efforts to Obama's secret abortion initiative.  
Along the way, I also generated five interviews on Imus, a half-a-hundred other local radio interviews and more than 100 Internet media articles.  
Finally, to cap it all off, Rush Limbaugh read one of my entire American Thinker posts to his 20 million readers ... and I wasn't even a candidate!
 This process will generate media coverage and broadcast participation, which will attract new online followers and add online credibility to candidate.  This is another area where most purely online social media efforts fail – they don’t take it outside the four walls of the computer screen and into the larger media.

A side note:  publishing an eBook, or even announcing a forthcoming eBook, will enhance the candidate’s credibility with the news media and the blogosphere.  Authors have an almost automatic cachet that few others can claim.  Presidential candidates routinely have campaign-oriented books, but few other candidates consider this - to their detriment. 
Bottom line:  By coordinating these three efforts – content, conversation and off-line media PR promotion – you can position your candidate as a subject matter expert on a hot political topic, and as a visionary thought leader in that same area.  Over time, this will all help make the candidate one of the Internet’s – and one of the media’s – “go-to guys” on the issue.  He or she will be seen as both a candidate and an individual who is a touchstone for both online and offline discussions on the topic.
Sidebar – Creating the Campaign's Conversation Team
 Creating ghost-written content is second nature to every media PR professional and most campaign experts, and that goes for media relations as well. This makes the creation of those two teams largely self-explanatory.  However, creating “Conversation” is far more personal, and more than a bit tricky.  Individuals on the Conversation Team are a special breed, men and women who need to be able to do the following:
1.     One:  They should be able to look at new content, then immediately know where and how to position it online, by using social media platform posts and with various discussion groups.
2.     Two:  They should be adept at identifying, creating and posting items which seem to personalize or humanize the candidate, based - remarkably - on that person’s daily calendar.  Instead of posting (in the lead person’s voice) “I’m in Las Vegas today to give a talk on such-and-such,” say something like, “I never realized what heat really was until I came to Vegas today to give that talk at …”
3.    Third, however, the real trick is to win the confidence of the candidate, then get inside that person’s head. It’s vital to understand the candidate's thoughts, his or her passions, and dreams and the things that makes him or her eager to get up in the morning to tackle a new day.  This kind of information is essential to humanize this candidate, but that only comes after trust is established. 
However, once trust is established and the candidate becomes an open book, judgment kicks in.  There are a string of topics that should be avoided – taboo subjects must include exposing this person’s family or intimate interactions while trying to create that humanization.  It’s a tricky tight-rope, one that requires real discernment, as well as real trust.  It takes a special, intuitive and insightful person to fill this role.
There is one other caveat to creating an online persona for the candidate.  The candidate needs to understand that this is about the election, and not about them, personally.  Let me repeat:  this is not about them.  this is about the iconic “them” that you are creating to capture and own a key topic area on the Internet, and by doing so, win the election. 
This means, among other things, that the candidate should not be posting him- or herself on these social media sites.  In fact, this should go a step further.  The candidate's previous personal posts – if posted in his or her name – must come down.   This is a tough sell, but it’s essential to make the conversation part of the process really work.  

Because it's not really about them - it's about the elections.

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