2013

Digging into the grassroots

Sophia Gerakios

ABC journalist Leigh Sales led a forum of speakers at Sydney’s Town Hall to discuss how political messages are crafted and how social media can be used as a tool to mobilise political support.

According to Joe Rospers, US President Barack Obama’s chief digital strategist during both the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, “the highest value interaction a campaigner can have with voters is not delivering a good political slogan or a catchy jingle, but having a conversation with a potential voter, being well prepared and knowing how to target them”.

Joe Rospars

Joe Rospars

The advertising guru behind the Kevin ’07 election campaign, Neil Lawrence, described political campaigning as “making sure you are just a bit better than the other guys”. But how does one go about building support for a candidate or political party?

Successfully delivering a political message that is “nuanced, has substance, is personal, and is targeted towards a specific demographic” is critical, said Joe. Using the labour-intensive strategy of data mining (collecting, consolidating and assessing demographics through surveys, door-knocking, individual volunteer interactions with the public), Joe and his team craft messages to target Americans likely to vote for Obama, but that are either not registered to vote or not interested in politics. His staff and team of volunteers post videos online, on Facebook and Twitter to mobilise support.

Leigh Sales

Leigh Sales

Grahame Morris, former chief of staff to John Howard and political commentator, was asked how the US experience could be translated to Australian political campaigns. He said the principles of building support are the same, however the key difference is that a campaign in Australia does not have to engage a voter to vote at all, nor raise funding: “The Australian context will always be different, so long as we have a compulsory voting system.”

The focus then, said Neil, is simply “persuading people to vote in a particular way”. Grahame said the person they spent the most money on in a campaign “was the uncommitted, swinging person uninterested in politics”.

The panel was asked by a bold audience member, “Do you feel like you are part of an evil machine that is responsible only for spitting out rhetoric?”

Grahame delivered an answer fit for a campaigner – concise, confident and memorable: “We are the advisors, the hired help. At the end of the day, when the leader makes a speech, we will know what they are going to say and why they are saying it. We are all about crystallising a message into a digestable form.”

Grahame Morris; picture by Barton Deakin

Grahame Morris; picture by Barton Deakin

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