What is Online Strategy?
What is online strategy? That’s the question many veteran political consultants, candidates, organizations, and my grandmother ask when I say that’s what we do.
The simple answer is that online strategy equals political strategy today. In a culture where everything — from planning your wedding to petitioning your government — happens online, the distinction between routine activity and “online” activity is practically unnecessary.
What do I mean? The political environment right now demands a candidate who offers a different kind of politicking, the kind where regular Joes (and Janes) feel like they are as important to the campaign as the candidate.
Barack Obama has received credit for understanding this and reflecting his understanding in his political tactics. For example, when Obama supported the House’s FISA (federal surveillance) compromise, despite previously taking a more liberal approach on the issue, many of his supporters reacted strongly. Encouraged throughout to engage in the campaign, Obama’s supporters used his website’s social networking platform to protest his position.
Certainly his supporters also used mail, the phone, and email to protest the position; however, through the social networking platform, the opposition to the candidate’s position was transparent, demanding a reaction from the campaign. Obama and his campaign had four options: 1) disband the unruly group of supporters using his site to criticize him, 2) ignore the protest, 3) change his position to appease the angry supporters, and 4) address the issue and those opposing it in the same medium for which the supporters’ opposition was so public.
Obama chose the last option, earning mad props from those looking for a more honest, courageous government. And let’s be frank, who isn’t?Obama’s approach falls under the definition of online strategy. There was nothing particularly technical or web-savvy about addressing supporters’ concerns directly and publicly to quell an uprising. It was, however, democratic (note the small “d”) and smart political strategy.
Now I’m not on the Obama love train. I just use the Obama example because as a presidential candidate, his political maneuvers receive the most attention. What’s more encouraging for us is a glimpse of activity by superstar Republican candidates and officials showing that they have equal, perhaps superior, understanding of online strategy.
They recognize that the Web is not the wild frontier that so many political warriors fear. The Web allows for faster, wider participation in politics, but the timeless fundamentals of participatory democracy have not changed.
When the Louisiana legislature voted to double their pay, bloggers and talk radio hosts were outraged. The voters followed. Their displeasure hit the boiling point when Governor Bobby Jindal initially said he would not veto the bill, and they flooded the Governor’s office with calls and emails against the pay raise. Bloggers and talk radio hosts made opposing the pay raise their primary government grievance, eliciting comments from angry citizens.
Jindal, faced with the same four options that Obama faced with FISA, chose the option of reversing his position, just in time. He chose the voters’ interests over the legislature, vetoing the bill. And he made sure voters knew that their input made the difference, humbly writing to them via email:
…I want to thank you, and all the citizens of Louisiana, who have become so vocal on this and so involved in the process, and ask you to stay involved. There is a lot more to do. Don’t tune out or stop paying attention to the political process now. This government belongs to you; it is your business. I’m going to need your help. …
In Washington State, Republican gubernatorial challenger Dino Rossi (who lost in 2004 by a couple hundred votes that many still question) also recognizes that voters demand more from their candidates today. On his website, Rossi has a section titled Tell Dino, that encourages Washington State voters to provide input for improving their state. In explaining Tell Dino, Rossi offers a Jindal-like approach to governance:
When I am your Governor, this website will remain active. And it will be as important to me then as it is to me now.
For Jindal and Rossi, like Obama, online strategy is not technical, it’s political … and smart.
By understanding and implementing online/political strategy, we at Engage propose that a more honest, responsive and democratic government will follow. We encourage all current and future candidates and organizations we advise to storm into the online frontier like the fate of the nation depends on it.