Harnessing the Power of Social Media: Understanding the Strategy and Impact of the Obama campaign in Digital Public Relations

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Sydney Sarachan
Account Executive, Digital
Hill & Knowlton U.S.

The inauguration of Barack Obama in January 2009 was historic in many ways. Not only was he the first African American to be elected as President of the United States, but Obama’s presidential election campaign will make waves in all facets of public relations for years to come.

For the first time since the advance of the digitized world, we saw a highly integrated, thoroughly reasoned strategy on how best to mobilize the American people. The revolution of “groundswell” may well have been realized in 2008, and initiatives pioneered in PR and cause-related efforts will inevitably turn to mimic the execution of the Obama campaign in the years ahead.

Barack Obama’s success did not sprout merely out of the digital abyss. Rather, the Obama campaign, harnessing the online power of fundraising and the offline capabilities of a motivated following, echoed a trend preceding it by at least three years. The online world had quietly become a battleground for supporters and detractors alike and a broad paradigm shift in aggregating political support online impelled the campaigns to take a hard look at how best to develop the space.

Recognizing the correct and balanced way to utilize the online space, however, will prove to be more challenging than the ease with which Obama’s people seemingly pulled off their digital campaign. No longer will it be acceptable to understand simply how to use social media or how to understand those influencers using it. New strategies will have to be determined to make smart use of these channels, not simply to convince the stakeholder on the receiving end, but to charge him or her with the necessity to pass the message along. If nothing else, the Obama campaign brilliantly propelled stakeholders to convince their network of his message and for their vote. Therefore, a confluence of message, across many platforms, has been proven possible and necessary.

For social media, the transformation from insider status to chief proponent of “change” will also mark a dramatic shift in its exposure in PR and for campaign teams and brand proponents alike. The Obama strategy fluctuated between aggregation and motivation, a symbiotic relationship shaped wholly by social media for the millennial generation first and with large effect on older generations thereafter. The Obama website served as a single, customizable destination for stakeholders. From there, content was distributed throughout the Obama campaign’s social media assets and proved to be extraordinarily fresh. In an age when an hour is a long time-lag for information, the Obama campaign maintained a lead on updating information through every available channel. What Obama’s campaign did offline, therefore, reflected online. Every video, tweet, Facebook message, MySpace update, etc. reiterated Obama’s message because it was tracking each move the campaign executed, as it happened. Once the campaign was outfitted with these assets online, crafting a personal, relevant and finely-tuned experience for voters was not just possible but noteworthy.

MyBarackObama.com, the social networking site launched by the campaign, became the portal through which the two million registered activists saw this campaign. No longer was voter X receiving Obama’s message however any media outlet deigned. Instead, voter X was able to internalize the message without any external filter. If voter X lived in Pennsylvania, he or she was able to personalize the Obama Web site so that those issues of relevance to Pennsylvania were housed behind X’s login and password. Furthermore, the space allowed users to connect with one another online while consistently encouraging offline participation. The Washington Post reported that 200,000 offline events were planned on the social network.

The integration of these new media tools also were integrated carefully across platforms. Obama Mobile, a sub-site of BarackObama.com, allowed voters to download mobile applications and sign up for the Obama text-messaging list. When the iPhone app was posted on Obama Mobile, it became the eighth most popular download on iTunes, according to the Washington Post. The use of text messaging, however, went far beyond signing up for text alerts on the mobile Web site. The campaign strategy to disseminate Obama’s choice for running mate via text message worked to transform Obama’s support base. 2.9 million text messages were reportedly sent the evening Obama made the VP announcement, according to Nielsen.

The “Obama effect” will mimic those trends that have been, by now, highly trafficked and thrashed out in the public relations universe, like that of the PR professional as a trusted resource for influencers, rather than a “gatekeeper” of corporate information. Just as Obama’s people put the power in the hands of his supporters, so too will PR serve as the connector of information, messaging and ultimately, brand ownership. While initiatives that embrace this have already begun to be undertaken, in the coming years it will become the industry standard – think My Starbucks Idea or the Coke fan- created Facebook page to co-own it with the brand.

In spaces like MoveOn.org and Meetup.com, Obama had his own brand enthusiasts pioneering campaign messaging. In the realm of “socialized” social media, the Obama campaign was the tipping point. For strategies to come, providing brand stakeholders with the assets and the ownership to utilize social networking sites, beyond just Facebook and MySpace, will be imperative. Not only will strategies like this ingratiate and build trust with stakeholders, they also will provide the authenticity now demanded in every aspect of PR and corporate reputation.

In the coming years, the call to action will no doubt inspire social media users to employ the space for good, common causes. Citizens of the world already take to online mediums to form communities, mobilize others and for the general exchange of information and ideas. Campaigns to raise money via Twitter for disasters in China or for money to the Red Cross, use of mobile phone technology by NGOs in countries with small broadband penetration, viral video messaging for campaigns against disease, etc. have already begun. More and more, brands, political parties, independent initiatives and campaigns will exercise social media in the continued operation to connect individuals the world over. Understanding the repercussions of this movement for business or politics will be a continuous education and for (at least) the next two years, the Obama administration will be there to drive the discussion.

There are a number of takeaways for brands in communications from what the Obama campaign was able to achieve. The most notable are as follows:

  • Continue with transparent communications. It is as important as ever to communicate in an authentic and wholly sustainable way. Obama’s campaign achieved notoriety because individuals believed in his genuineness. So too in a recession economy, brand stakeholders support brand voices that achieve honesty through successful communications.
  • Allow the stakeholder to own a piece of the brand. By providing compelling and transferable content, the Obama campaign proved that donating some brand ownership to stakeholders is not such a scary thing after all. In fact, the ability for consumers to customize brand engagement proves to be a brand investment for stakeholders.
  • Create groups of brand evangelists. Part of Obama’s success was the notoriety he received via word of mouth channels. By producing supporters who were imbued with a sense of purpose, through campaign education and armed with campaign assets, concentric circles of influence were built around supporters. So too should brands begin to make personal and meaningful relationships with stakeholders, who have the built-in trust and ability to influence other stakeholders in a way no brand is capable of doing. Once this has happened, groups of brand evangelists have the social networking tools to aggregate around the brand, together.
  • Push mobile engagement. No campaign before Obama truly embraced the ability of the mobile phone to be a game changer. Opt-in mobile engagement is a personal, portable and forward-able way to engage an entire series of stakeholders on the go.
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