OMG Elections Are Like So Uncool :(


*slightly longer blog than usual due to requirement of my university module. Please stay. It really is quite interesting  

Forget Spring, there’s the whiff of electioneering in the air. The Prime Minster bared his soul in a deeply uncomfortable appearance on  primetime TV (remember he once said he should be judged on policy and not personality) and MPs are all smiles when they meet you- a bit like the bin men at Christmas. 

It’s always an exciting time for the media. And it’s not just because of the overtime. Up and down the land plans and policies are being dusted down and updated with the prospect of new occupants at Number 10 adding a little extra spice. 

So what’s going to be different this time round? Well it’s all to do with us. Academics, commentators and analysts are currently knocking out reams of column inches in traditional print and online as they forecast the impact (or not) of what can be loosely termed ‘social media’ on the General Election. 

The explosion in content sourced and created by you and I and shared across platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and multiple other variations can be seen either as a genuinely alternative form of citizen journalism or a ‘fifth estate’ which complements what is already being provided by mainstream and traditional media. 

Many are scared by it. Many more are intrigued by its possibilities. For the established media the deep dilemma is controlling the content. Open the gatekeeping door just a little and the tide of video, audio, blogs, opinions and data can rapidly transform from exciting and alternative if occasionally random to overwhelming and heavy on resources. All agree on one thing. It cannot be ignored. 

For the BBC it is proving a taxing issue. Late last year the view from one senior executive could be summarised as ‘proceed with caution’. And then last week another effectively told staff to ’embrace or clear off’. Why this apparent divergence of viewpoints at such a high level, and only a few  months apart? 

There are two possibilities.  The first is the impending General Election. Social media could play a part for the first time in the UK and BBC execs need staff to be ready for it. The second is a gentle kick up the backside after an academic study (by one of its own staff) showed the BBC was lagging behind other major organisations in how it used this alternative content. 

Let’s deal with the first. Friends = votes. A simple but effective mantra for all strategists. It is now established that Barack Obama was swept to power partly because his team used social media in a more intelligent way than  adversary John McCain. On election day Obama had three million supporters on Facebook; McCain 600,000. Appointing Chris Hughes- co founder of Facebook, to his campaign team, undoubtedly helped. 

Obama ‘got’ Facebook while McCain’s team pretended not to care. One of his team memorably said ‘Facebook users aren’t McCain voters anyway’. Fact: there are 36 million Facebook users in America. 

While happily using established social networks the Obama team also created This gave them complete control over the content and the messages they wanted to put out. It was an intriguing mix of messaging centre, rallying tool and revenue raiser. Over 1 million joined. 

Obama used You Tube, Flickr and Twitter as well. With over 130,000 following his every tweet his team used it as a broadcast tool. They did not reply to any tweets sent their way. And it served a purpose. Obama stopped using Twitter once he was in the Oval Office. 

In terms of staff he had a core team of 11 which increased to over 30 as election day approached- working solely on online campaigning. 

So, what impact will social media have here on this election? On the BBCs College of Journalism website Claire Wardle  (link below) says there are fundamental differences in campaign culture, the political system and fundraising regulations between the two countries. And the candidate was special in so many ways. 

The key, she argues, could be empowerment. Obama’s campaign reached out to the grassroots who campaigned for him. They believed in him. They did his bidding. Here the main parties are still preaching to the faithful. She warns that ‘treating supporters as passive consumers of scripted one way campaign messages will have limited impact.’   

She worries that political coverage will be focussed on a cock-up….an unguarded or ill-judged comment or moment by a candidate captured on a mobile phone and used for scurrilous purposes when what should be happening is that social media can provide new ways of reporting politics which might re-engage some voters. 

Savvy BBC staff will of course be ensuring the right people are being followed and alert to all the electronic twists and turns the election campaign could and will take.  This commitment to understanding and using content from outside their newsrooms was underlined by BBC’s new Head of Global News Peter Horrocks last week. And boy did he upset some with his rallying call which had all the grace and sensitivity of BNP minders. 

Until now the broadcaster has been very cautious about social media. In the BBC’s current Editorial Guidelines ‘social media’ is mentioned only once- when Editors are warned to ‘consider the impact of re-use’. News supremo Helen Boaden- in November- said social media promised new possibilities but also opened ‘a can of worms’ . She said the corporation would ‘increasingly rely on specialists to slice through the gossip, trivia and opinion that can find a breeding ground on the internet’.   

Now Horrocks tells the team that social media “provides journalists with a wider range of opinion and gives them access to a whole range of voices” and warns them to effectively close the door on the way out if they fail to embrace the possibilities of Twitter and RSS feeds. 

The Guardian website was inundated with views.  One blogger wrote: 

‘BBC News: We now bring you some breaking news of an alleged explosion in Baghdad. @johnnyfudgeface on Twitter says “OMG just saw bom in market. WTF?” Some photographs have also been posted on Flickr but we can’t show you those. Now here’s some florist who wandered into the studio to give us his worthless opinion’  

Meanwhile another was more supportive: ‘crowd sourcing using Twitter would be just a fashionable buzz phrase were it not for the fact that it actually works. You genuinely get stories from this and it’s a neat way of keeping in touch with part of your audience. What we understand by the word ‘media’ is undergoing a huge transformation. It’s absolutely correct for Horrocks to encourage his people to keep abreast of where the audiences are and to engage with them on their terms.’  

So, a wake up call ahead of the election or simply a wake up call?  Late last year a chunky piece of research by BBC staffer Nic Newman (link below) compared the BBC with significant mainstream multi media publishers including CNN, The New York Times, The Telegraph and Guardian and examined their use of social media. It was not the most flattering of documents for the corporation. Too much navel gazing, not enough clear action (like CNN). 

It is of course not an easy one. Just how open to all should the BBC be? As a public service broadcaster there is perhaps extra pressure to ensure that anything which appears, from whatever source, should be verified and checked and not act as a shop window for every conspiracist and madman. One BBC staff member recently told me that to get too involved in social media would damage reputation and credibility because of the sheer amount of content which would need to be checked. 

My view….there’s a happy medium. Put simply provide great stories and they will come. They will want to discuss and share. Ultimately by creating content which is watchable, linkable and findable the BBC can be at the heart of this new generation of  multimedia multi sourced material. Horrocks knows this. His language was clumsy but the message was a clear one to those inside and, just as importantly, outside the corporation. 


The Guardian article

Claire Wardle’s BBC Blogs:

The academic study:


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