Barriers to New Media Success in Canadian Politics

Since the breathtaking success of President-elect Obama’s campaign, new media is being touted as the future of political campaigns and citizens engagement. Interest in applying the new media lessons learned in that campaign to the (marketing) campaigns of the corporate world is exploding. My daughter and colleague Rahaf, who put her life on hold for 3 months and worked for the new media group at the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago, can witness to that. A recent invitation to speak about her experience in an intimate setting at Toronto University’s Rotman School of Business attracted 300 people and forced the relocation of the event to a larger auditorium.

In her presentation Rahaf listed six lessons learned from the Obama new media campaign. She also pointed out to the vision driving the campaign as being a fundamental element of its success. Through further conversations with her I came to think that this may be indeed the most profound lesson learned. The recent political developments in Ottawa have raised public interest and brought increased engagement and activism in online venues like Twitter and Facebook. There are several calls for mobilizing online against the Harper government, so I am trying to apply Rahaf’s six lessons plus my current understanding of new media success factors to the present Canadian context.

What amplified the success of Obama’s new media campaign is a vision that was people not candidate centric; its core elements of hope, change, inclusiveness and mutual respect resonated with a broad spectrum of people. It was that vision that attracted like-minded top organizers and staffers, established a strategy of two-way communications with the people around a consistent message, engaged young and old people in a respectful way, and admitted the new media group as an equal at the planning and operational levels. It didn’t hurt either that the candidate is charismatic and inspiring.

What Canadians politicians can learn

So how do we compare? Although many people converge towards core Canadian values of collaboration, tolerance, etc. no party has a well articulated vision that resonates with what people really want from their politicians:

  • Putting people’s interests and the country first, ahead of narrow minded party tactics;
  • Engage in intelligent, civil, and constructive conversation in parliament across party lines;
  • Lead instead of being kicked in the but every step of the way;
  • Restore hope and pride in Canada’s role as a global leader.

Instead, the various parties are aligned along the traditional combative lines of last century: “small government”, “middle of the road for middle class” and “workers unite”. Never mind the absence of a charismatic and inspiring leader!

Continuing along the traditional model, all significant discussions and decisions are made in backrooms by an exclusive club of elitists and their staffers, who excel at delivering quick short-term results through tricks and mean tactics, even at the cost of the country or at the detriment of their own party’s members. Consequently, no party has a clear need or desire to engage the masses and really listen. As a result engagement is seen as a PR exercise and communications is a one-way delivery function receiving it’s instructions from the closed club.

What can we do about it

So, here are my recommendations for any party wanting to use new media:

  1. Start by articulating a vision rooted in the people’s needs and wants
  2. Commit publicly to the values of transparency, inclusiveness, and willingness to change in order to align with your constituents
  3. Recruit your inner circle from people who have demonstrated their commitment to these values
  4. Devise a comprehensive two-way communications strategy around a clear and consistent message
  5. Attract young engaged leaders to implement the new media component of your strategy and treat them with the respect they deserve

Without a vision around which people can rally, without a core that is committed to transparency, inclusiveness and change, and without truly listening to people and engaging in meaningful conversations, no media (never mind new media) can deliver the strategic advantage everyone is looking for.

Where do we start

How we can jump-start this process is a question that should be opened to the people to contribute their mass creativity to. Here is my personal contribution: How about if a group of politicians from one or more parties establishes a list of the core principles of such vision and a code of conduct (sort of a manifesto if you prefer big words) and starts practicing it openly?

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