Part 6: 7 Communication Issues the Mississippi GOP Can Address in 2012

#6: Just Being Online Isn’t Enough. Keep Adding Technology Tools to the Toolbox, and Use Them for Real Engagement.

The following is the sixth part of a seven part series from Keith Plunkett, CEO and Communications Strategist with Horizon Media Marketing. Learn more about how to develop winning strategies to communicate your corporate or political campaign at HorizonMediaMarketing.com

Haven’t read the first five? Read Part 1 HERE, Part 2 HERE, Part 3 HERE, Part 4 HERE, and Part 5 HERE.

 BY: B. Keith Plunkett
 
I used to think that cyberspace was fifty years away. What I thought was fifty years away, was only ten years away. And what I thought was ten years away… it was already here. I just wasn’t aware of it yet.
Bruce Sterling

From left: Quinton Dickerson with Frontier Strategies and Consultant to the Phil Bryant Campaign for Governor, State Senator David Blount, Mick Bullock Communications Director of Governor Phil Bryant, State Senator Michael Watson, and Communications Strategist Keith Plunkett of Horizon Media Marketing are introduced during a recent panel discussion of Social Media and Politics.

Several weeks ago I had the priviledge of moderating a panel on Social Media and Politics for the American Advertisers Federation in Jackson. The panel included State Senators, Communication Directors and Political Strategists. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation, as I always do when it comes to talking about communication and social media. But, it was a bit disheartening at times to hear the questions from the audience. Many of these professionals in the field of advertising and public relations think of social media in terms of protection from the public instead of engagement, and even one of our panelist forecast that it was just a matter of time before some public official made a terrible mistake in posting to Facebook.

Exactly Why Did You Get Into Public Service?

During a recent panel discussion on bipartisanship in New Orleans, two Republican’s, one a former communications director to President George W. Bush, blamed social media for the level of animosity and anger with government. This type of blame game and fear shows a monumental lack of understanding about the incredible opportunity social media provides. Moreover it shows a small-minded fear of the loss of control instead of a passion for grabbing the reins of a wonderful opportunity. That a high level person–a former Communications Director to a United States President–fears one of the most incredible tools for grass roots message building and organization ever devised is telling.

The lack of understanding is less about the mediums importance than its implementation.

Most Mississippi Republicans who have balked at using social media are beginning to understand the importance of using it. Any campaign or communication strategy must go where the people are. But, a majority still don’t really understand social media implementation and how communications strategy must take it into account. The public consumption of information is no longer as simple as a “bumper sticker” line. Those themes are still important, but the public is increasingly expecting more content to back up the slogans.

I was in a meeting this week with a Republican public official that Horizon will be working with in an upcoming election. We discussed finally bringing them onboard with social media. The question we got was, “What if somebody comments something negative? Should we delete it?” My answer, “Hell No! You must address the comment. Would you have somebody kicked out of a town hall or a public forum if they asked a question you didn’t like? Of course not. It’s exactly the same.”

That’s what social media is at it’s core: a digital public forum.

The beauty of these new rules of engagement is that the public is really opening up to understand the nuance of policy, and once they understand it they will help influence others. The challenge for public officials is that the conversations never end, they must always be prepared to explain.

Helping Mississippi Leap Ahead of the Curve

The general consensus is that Mississippi’s media markets are about 6 to 8 years behind other neighboring markets in the implementation of new online tools. Here at Horizon, we’re doing what we can to help Mississippi leap ahead of that curve. For our clients, taking that leap begins with a desire to show a more detailed orientation, a willingness to leave the term “no comment” behind, and a commitment to grasp new tools to show a passion for the subject.

The challenge is to get them to understand that showing passion and commitment in online communication, versus being unwilling to engage out of fear, is the same as choosing between being relevant or being left behind.

Democrats used technology to hold on to several key Congressional seats across the country a decade ago that they would have otherwise lost using conventional tactics. This eventually led to winning the presidency with a virtually unknown and untested Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. Despite a huge backlash from the TEA Party in 2010, Democrats managed to minimize national losses using technology as an organizational tool.

Technology works. It’s been proven.

The organizational and institutional knowledge put together during that time is now being imported and put to use in Mississippi by Democrat friendly, pro-union organizations to confound conservatives with issue specific messages.

Let’s also not forget that part of the reason the Mississippi GOP finds itself in the position of control now has a lot to do with the TEA Party’s use of Social Media to get out the vote.

The TEA Party isn’t likely to back Democrats. But they are ferociously independent, and determined to stay that way. They have shown they won’t be co-opted. Without communicating why some particular policy is being pursued, and how it fits into a worldview of less government and more personal freedom, Mississippi Republicans could find themselves in the midst of a TEA Party storm pretty easily, much like the Republicans now find themselves at the federal level. Any injury incurred by a Republican elected official as a result of the storm could make them just weak enough during the next election cycle to fall to a Democrat opponent in some districts here in Mississippi.

Issue Specific

One recent example of how technology is being used here in Mississippi on a strictly message based level is Honor Your Promise. Honor Your Promise is a group built around the premise that the Governor’s appointment of a commission to review the retirement system was “an attack on public employees”. The ink was hardly dry on the Governor’s signature forming the commission before a full-fledged backlash began. The Honor Your Promise website, while somewhat busy and lacking in graphic quality, has a huge amount of content, research, and talking points.

Honor Your Promise had state retirees prepared to argue the point before Republicans even knew there was going to be an argument.

Our state GOP and high ranking officials were content to leave it alone. But a few State Senators pooled their resources and fought back in a short 8 day campaign that used technology to put out the word that Republicans don’t support cutting benefits, an effort I was called on to be a part of as a consultant. The website traffic was brisk, especially for such a short campaign. In just over a week, we had over 40,000 impressions on Facebook alone, and helped break several statewide articles to counter the opposition, including one picked up by the AP and run nationally. We successfully quieted the argument from a gale to a light breeze, just enough to help a couple of the members retain their seats in some close races.

Another example of message based communication is the use of technology to publicize education ratings by The Parents Campaign. If you’ve never heard of this group, don’t let the name fool you. This group isn’t about parents choosing anything. They’re about getting more funding for the government school system as it exists regardless of a school performance, and they know which side their bread is buttered. That’s why just prior to the primary elections they quickly released and disseminated a list ranking legislators on education. They used technology to do it.

Email campaigns rallied the school superintendents, who in turn shared their lists with teachers, in some cases just 24 hours prior to the election. As a result, a number of longstanding Republican legislators who had dedicated themselves to the party and it’s principles lost in close contests.

Republicans seem to understand that online media is a great networking tool. But, they haven’t yet grasped it’s importance as an issue influencer, and a polling tool.

Many Republican officials that finally decided to join the social media world have only done so half-heartedly, signing up and then not using the medium to actually communicate much of anything. A great number of our legislators Twitter accounts have gone without an update in months, even years.

In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell argues that success in any particular field has less to do with intellect than it does passion and opportunity. It’s not just what you know, it’s when you know it and whether you are driven to act. Maybe for some of our public officials to lament all this easy communication as too risky shows that they are simply not driven to act on it because they are too accustomed to the old way of doing business. But, as an organization, the GOP shouldn’t use that excuse.

Many Democrat state lawmakers have successfully been using social media before some Republicans climbed on board the wagon. Stats indicate that there are more Republican minded people in the state using Social Media now than those that lean Democrat. Part of that is due to socio-economics and a lack of education and access. But, the numbers also indicate that it is the Democrat leaning users that are the youngest, and those numbers are growing.

Mississippians on Facebook who identify themselves as Democrat

 

Mississippians on Facebook who identify themselves as Republican

Open Graph technology, launched just under two years ago, is allowing for engagement and analyzation at detailed levels never before available. The detailed connections that can be reviewed from this type of data has the potential to blow old polling models out of the water.

Of the numbers in the graph above, it is also possible to find how many are women and how many are men, which of them like music, how many consider themselves religious, how many like television stations and which ones they prefer, what is their favorite restaurant, and on and on and on into minute detail.

With study of online data, we can find exactly what Mississippians think about public officials. At present, Republicans have a slightly greater affinity for Congressman Gregg Harper than Governor Phil Bryant, and Democrats favor former gubernatorial candidate Johnny Dupree just above President Obama’s official Mississippi campaign organization.

In other words, it’s possible to find out a great deal about the 2 million people in Mississippi who use social media. This allows marketers and strategists to analyze people in the community where they are most comfortable and where developing the relationship can have the most impact. It’s a much more natural stream of data due to the fact that people are voluntarily responding and not being “polled”. Sometimes with typical polling, those answering the questions are more concerned about giving the “correct” answer than their true opinion.

The possibilities of this online analyzation only increase with time, as more data is made available.

Some people may live in the past, but organizations that refuse to keep up are rarely around for very long.

These type of tactics reflect the new reality, and the new rules of engagement. GOP leadership, like any other industry today, must conduct planning and stay on top of it to tweak it when necessary, lest the message and ultimately the relevance of conservative elected officials get left behind.

It’s easy now after the 2011 election to think that such a thing can no longer happen in Mississippi. Republicans are firmly in control. But it’s foolhardy to presume they can’t be beaten. Shifting demographics mean that if we continue to allow divisions and write-off certain segments of the population it’s just a matter of time before Democrats claw their way back. They’re certainly not going to ride off into the sunset.

Republicans must convince the public at large and prove that conservative ideas work through policy implementation. Then showcase how those victories help Mississippians by using data to know how and where to best communicate that message. Micro-targeting is both possible and affordable with online media tools.

There is a window of opportunity now, and it must be taken advantage of. Ramping up issue engagement via Social Media is the solution, if Mississippi Republicans are not too scared to say what they think and why they think it.

The Mississippi GOP, not unlike other organizations in the state, has been content to follow the lead of others in the use of new online tools. Engagement at best has been boring, at worst non-existent, and most often only applicable to the national scene. With leadership that’s willing to drive the wagon instead of just going along for the ride, it is possible to change that. That change could be responsible for training rank-and-file Republicans across the state how to do the same–a point I’ll get into in the next and final installment on integration and organization.  The result could be an increase in the following of the Mississippi GOP, and Republican candidates from a more energized and engaged demographic. An energized and engaged group can do more than add to the voter roles. They can, and likely will, help convince others that continued conservative solutions will positively influence the lives of future Mississippians.

About Keith: Keith Plunkett began blogging in 2006 during his time as a small town newspaper publisher, and following two years of traditional print media experience. Soon after, he began writing for and advising political candidates and small businesses on best practices for integrating traditional and internet communications strategies. He has worked with a range of public officials from aldermen to Congressmen, and a variety of businesses, governmental agencies and non-profits. He serves or has served as a board member of several non-profit, civic and political organizations. Contact him by going to HorizonMediaMarketing.com or follow him on Twitter  @Keithplunkett

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