What Canadian Politicians Can Learn from Barack Obama

I had the pleasure of speaking at the British Columbia New Democratic Party convention yesterday to share some thoughts about what Canadian politicians can learn from the Obama campaign. For many, Obama has become the new standard for political campaigns, validating the power of these tools when embedded within an overarching communication and branding strategy. While I do agree with using this particular example as a case study to showcase the potential of these tools, I caution organizations from jumping in and blindly imitating the tactics.

Social Media is a reflection of your organizations’ brand and should therefore be custom tailored to communicate to your audience. This means that not all the places that Obama was present online will offer the same value as others. Not everything they did will work for you. Below are some of my thoughts, that I will flesh out in the coming weeks.

Some Lessons Learned:

1) Building a Sleeper Community:

Unlike our American neighbors we don’t always have the luxury of knowing well in advance when a Federal election will take place. Last October’s election left politicians with less than a month to ramp up and get organized. This is not enough time to educate, excite and inspire people to participate in the political process.  For us, the challenge will be establishing sleeper grassroots communities – groups of people who engage in activities during the year and who can be called to action at a moment’s notice.

This means that for politicians who are looking to engage voters, the activities must go beyond election ramp up. If you want people to be involved you need to give them something valuable to be involved in. Parties need to find initiatives that encourage voters to develop the right skill sets (canvassing, phone banking, online organizing etc) that can then be easily transferred to an election setting.

This is far more challenging as it requires constant effort and input on behalf on both voters and politicians.

2) Finding the right Messaging:

During the 2008 US Presidential Elections, the one thing that struck me was the “do-or-die” mentality that was visibly present in so many of our volunteers. Many were feeling the impacts of the economic crisis first hand: reports of foreclosed houses, out of control debts, unemployment, and lack of health insurance were common. People felt threatened. They felt that they had to act – or else the consequences would be dire.

Luckily for us, Canadians have not felt the impacts of this crisis as strongly. Instead, we hover around a sense of national complacency where we are mildly concerned with what is happening, but not motivated enough to act. Politicians will need to find a way to communicate the necessity and urgency of defending some of the very things that make us Canadian: our healthcare and education system, protecting our natural resources, maintaining our reputation abroad as peacemakers.  Personally, I fear that we are losing some of things piece by piece, and that we won’t notice the full impact of this loss until it is already too late.

3) New Types of Engagement:

Finally political parties need to be ready to listen to voters, and recognize that these tools have changed the way we communicate with each other. If voters are more comfortable with using some of these online tools to organize and communicate online, then it is up to the party to figure out the best way to leverage these online behaviours into value adding campaign activities. People want to be involved, they want to be heard, but they want to do it in their own way and using the tools that are comfortable for them.

Final thought:

It seems to be that this shift in social media is indicative of a deeper shift in the way that people want to interact with government in a way that goes far beyond mere communication. Government itself will have to evolve to adjust to these new expectations. The time for change is now, and the Party that recognizes these changing trends and moves to embrace it will reap unprecedented rewards.

ps: Check out this crazy picture of me speaking at the convention, I look SO intense!


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