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Will Social Media’s Rapid-Fire Role in U.S. Politics Be Adopted Abroad?

April 16, 2015

By: Michael Shue, SVP & Partner, Client Relations

In the U.S., there is now nearly no separation between social and traditional media, and public affairs campaigns have evolved to meet that new reality. Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for the 2016 elections in a digital blitz last week, while Ted Cruz continues to push out digital campaign messaging through roughly 31 tweets a week. To keep ahead of the rapidly evolving campaigning methods, digital strategist Vincent Harris joined Rand Paul’s team last November, and Clinton recently hired longtime Google executive Stephanie Hannon as her chief technology officer. Media has changed, and politicians are quickly adapting.

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Online campaigning strategies are evolving in the UK as well, with a growing role in the British public affairs space, and the country’s first social media election underway. In an unprecedented lead up to the 2015 election, social has reach higher user penetration than traditional media. It’s no coincidence that American-style digital strategies are migrating to the UK; two of Obama’s former staffers, renowned political strategists David Axelrod and Jim Messina, are serving as political consultants for the UK’s leading political parties, increasing the role of online campaigning on both sides. Interestingly, in contrast to its U.S. manifestation, the British usage has tended to be more for long-form explanations than rapid-fire exchanges. The result, to date, has been a much more respectful, conversational, digital dialogue. But is America’s bolder style of digital public affairs tactics migrating to the UK? Recent activity points to yes, and for a number of reasons.

Political advertising on television and radio is banned in the UK. As a result, parties are turning to advertising on social media networks, uploading videos, and publishing long-form posts about policies. This election, they are largely ignoring televised media and instead paying attention to digital sources that persuadable voters keep on them at all times.

At the time of the 2010 elections, social media was not yet a predominant means of political communication in the UK. Now, 66% of online, British adults have signed up to at least one social network, and many studies show that young voters have changed their vote based on information they viewed on social media. An Issos Mori poll best captures this new momentum, finding that 71% of the UK population said they believe social media “provides a platform and a voice to people who normally wouldn’t take part in political debates.” The UK’s growing online audience is raising the stakes for each party to master social media networks this election.

Not far from Polling Day, the UK’s first social media election was on full display during the last televised debate. More than 1.5 million tweets were sent about the leaders’ debate, averaging about 8,657 tweets per minute.

Leaders from the Conservative Party, Green Party, Liberal Democrats, and Scottish National Party (SNP) are all actively maintaining Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and YouTube channels. Parties are slower to adopt Instagram, with only Labour actively leveraging the network.

Beyond the U.S. and UK, we have seen a similar trend in Australia, South Africa, and various European nations where there is an emerging demand by citizens to engage more fully, not only on social media and the digital world, but broadly in their politics, and social media provides that opportunity in a way that was not accessible previously.

As this movement continues, it will be interesting to see the affect that it has on their parliamentary systems, in that this electoral fracturing could tilt the majority away from the dominant parties and force more coalition-based governing like we’ve seen in several European nations and just witnessed in the recent Israeli election.

Broader digital engagement allows people to self-select, giving outlier parties, like the UK Greens, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), and the SNP a larger share of the votes that traditionally would have gone to Britain’s Labour and Conservative parties. As these majorities shrink, coalition governments are formed, and they have to be governed more from the center. This either leads to complete failure or, more often, produces moderate, wise policies that incrementally move things forward. Time will tell how successful these governments will be, but the one thing we can all count on is that a smart digital strategy in politics is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

DDC specializes in designing and implementing social media campaign strategies—from targeted, multi-channel property management to robust social listening and reporting on the pulse of the digital conversation—to help our clients achieve their goals.

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