Is there anyone listening? The Virtual Politician

Blogs, twitter, Obama, social media, facebook, Obama, YouTube, online presence, Obama.

Stephen O'Shea's use of social media

Stephen O'Shea's use of social media

I joined the political race only a few months ago, as a candidate in the Dundrum local elections. My motivation is less about the politics and more about our local, community issues.  I’ve been involved in various community and resident groups over the last couple of years.  I’ve despaired at some of the decisions that have sneaked past us – a 90 metre high proposed hotel as part of Phase 2 of the Dundrum shopping centre development, that will dominate our landscape and overshadow our streets and view of the Dublin mountains, for instance.

When I say sneaked past, that’s not to claim there was no notice that this was what was included in the planning documents (it was all there for any resident to review and raise an objection) but our individual and collective lack of care and attention meant a less than rigorous exchange with the council and the developer.

From that point I actively engaged with the local council and resident groups: I am a founding member of DIG (Dundrum Interest Group) which subsequently raised over 60 submissions to the Phase 2 Development.  Change comes through political activism and action.  It’s hard as an individual to take on long established institutions and a strong, if sometimes, unwieldy bureaucratic structure.  Many give up in the process.

For me, it was the catalyst to increase my involvement.  I believe one needs to be on the inside to drive change.  That’s my history to joining the political race.  I am an Independent candidate in the upcoming local elections, in the Dundrum ward.

But, back to today’s topic.  The odds are stacked against me:

  • I am new to politics
  • I only entered the race on sign-up day, 23 May, 2009
  • I am an Independent Candidate, without the power or resources of a party machine behind me.
  • I have no funding other than my own cheque book.
  • I am known to a section of our community, but not the vast majority, a total electorate of 29,000+-

My task therefore, to build a public awareness and profile for myself with the electorate to gain in the region of 1500-2000 first preference votes, is substantial.  There are several dimensions to my campaign, one being the use of social networking and the new social media tools.  Whilst I’ve learnt my way around the planning process in the last couple of years, I knew little about social networking and how to build an online presence back in April.  I am not the Facebook generation and I wasn’t born with a text thumb.  But, as an aspiring public representative it behoves me to learn, and particularly, to tune into the needs and issues of other generations, younger and older than I.  Like everybody else in this time of extraordinary economic recession, I too can only benefit from upskilling myself.  And, we’ve all heard the story of the marketing (as opposed to making) of Obama who used social networking to phenomenal effect, in his bid for US presidency.

What have I done online?
In the act of self publicity I’ve:

I don’t have a FaceBook presence and I haven’t posted any political broadcasts to YouTube yet.

I’m not a marketing professional and my efforts have been that of a novice so I will not claim to have done everything right.  My linkedin profile, for instance, is only 50% complete. My blog site is a simple tool. It has inbuilt analytics and daily views statistics.

Measurement and success
You don’t have to be a marketing professional to know that you must measure your efforts and re-assess your campaign and activities based on the outcome.  I have done both.  I am now in the very last days of the campaign and will be focusing my efforts on offline activities, in old fashioned words, door to door canvassing.

But, first, to take a deeper look at what I’ve done and how successful I’ve been.

I set-up my twitter account roughly 3 months ago, before I declared my candidacy: not a long time I know.  My start was slow, not much more than tweeting with my advisor and friend, Una Coleman, www.codegaconsultingcom. At the point I decided to run for the local election I then developed my communications strategy.  Securing first preference votes is not just about knocking on doors and meeting the electorate: it’s first about analysing the ward to understand where I am most likely to achieve those first preference votes, and how second preferences will be distributed among the candidates.  I used an excellent and experienced tallyman to help me with that.  But, that story is for another day.

I also decided to devote a number of hours a week to off and online communications and media coverage.  Depending on the results of my efforts, I would adjust the focus as the campaign progressed.

How I got on
Let me have a look first at twitter.  There are now somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 people on twitter in Ireland and growing.  At this point it’s growing rapidly, though not yet exponentially.  The demographics are 30+, mostly professional and a strong emphasis on usage for professional information sharing and building an online business based network.  There should be a lot of potential voters in this group.

Once I broadly understood the mechanics, the 140 character “What are you doing”, the etiquette, particularly rules about self-publicising and blatant selling (which, incidentally I think is the primary focus of many users like it or not), the objectives for my campaign, how to reflect and build my “voice” and “brand”, I started in earnest.  I set up Tweet Deck to help me “find” people and groups who a) are interested in politics, in my constituency, interested in my community issues, b) are similarly running in the elections to learn from them and what they are doing – that included looking at what’s happening outside Ireland.

I set up some key words to automatically select people.  Within a very short period I’d built up nearly 1,000 that I was following.  At one point, I felt like a twitter stalker.  As one tweeter said, “I mentioned Dundrum and the next thing I had a politician following me. What’s that about?”  Within a few weeks, I had some 200 following me, using I suspect the same key word selection principal.  I think I can safely surmise that some within that list would have limited interest in me, my politics or local issues.

How much time per day have I spent to build up this eclectic mix of followers, now numbering around the 300? I would say on average 30 minutes.  How many of these are voters in my constituency?  I might be able to ascertain that by reviewing each one’ profile and doing some further online research.  Let’s say 10 minutes per person – that would work out at 50 hours – a good week’s work.  How many of those that are in my constituency are likely to vote for me?  At this point I cannot say but I’d reckon the percentage would be low.

I would suggest that spending that 50 hours canvassing the areas I’ve identified as likely to win me first preference votes would be time far better spent.

What twitter has done however, is that it has got me high up on the google ranking for Stephen O’Shea.

I gather there are something like 4,000 active bloggers in Ireland, 133m worldwide.  Some of the reasons people are using blogging are to a) put a face to their business – a human and interactive dimension to their websites, b) a forum and tool to speak their minds on any subject of interest to them c) attract media attention, d) stay in touch with family and friends and share what’s happening in their lives in a public way, e) meet and connect with people with similar interests and views.

A blogsite , therefore and in theory, is an essential tool in my efforts to build my online presence, my brand, share my policies and opinions with my electorate, help put a face to the candidate.

What have I done?
Well, I’ve set up the site, outlined my campaign priorities and platform, posted stories from the campaign trail, registered on other sites like I’ve posted comments on other blog sites, as relevant, reviewed what my opponents are doing (for some, that’s nothing). { Ross O’Mullane, founder of and candidate for the Dublin South By-Election has also expressed opinions on the role of online vs offline campaigning: to interpret him, I say he has concluded that much of this online effort is irrelevant to his campaign efforts}.

Like twitter, I know I have a lot more to do to refine my pitch, make my site more accessible, become better known to other political bloggers and online media.  But again, it is about the value of spending my time on that versus door to door canvassing, handing out leaflets at the Luas station, talking to people at Supervalue, after mass and all the other community access points.

The Obama effect (or should it be George Lee)
I would say I have spent on average 4 to 5 hours a week over the last several weeks on my blogsite.  Regrettably, traffic to the site has been minimal – myself, my family and friends, a few faithful followers and a few interested passers by.  Will I pick up any extra votes?  Not enough to justify the effort.

When I started my online campaign it was of course an experiment.  You’d want to have been buried deep in some bog (or blog) to not have heard of the success of Barak Obama’s online efforts, pulling in swathes of minority and young voters who have never voted before and using his online communication as an extraordinarily successful fund raising platform.

I don’t pretend to be Obama like and the circumstances are not easily replicable.  Despite being an outsider, he had the backing of an enormous party machine.  His minority status may have helped garner him votes with his fellow African Americans, who feel disenfranchised from the main stream politics and wouldn’t otherwise come out to vote or get involved.

We don’t use online tools as frequently or as widely as in the US.  Our access to broadband isn’t as good as in the States. There are lots of reasons why the Obama comparison isn’t fully valid or replicable (as yet).  There are many out there who are better able to articulate the reasons: Mark Coughlan for one:

What’s more interesting for me is how George Lee’s appearance on the Fine Gael ticket looks like encouraging many voters, otherwise undecided or reluctant to vote Fine Gael, now feel his presence brings credibility, weight and true opposition to Fianna Fail.

But, there is a local, negative impact.  As we all know, voters in Ireland use local elections and all non-national elections to vent their anger at the government.  Fair enough, it reflects the ways of democracy.  However an anti-government vote in our local elections makes no reference to either a) the past performance of our incumbent local councillors or b) their proposed agendas for the next four years if they are elected.

The relevance to my review of the role of social networking and social media tools is that George Lee’s entrance into the race will likely have far more impact on all the candidates than anything they have done online.

In conclusion, I would say the following:

  • Engaging with social networking and use of the social media tools, blogging, twitter, will have no impact on my current campaign.
  • I have upskilled myself and become aware of a whole new world out there.
  • I suspect it takes at a minimum 6 months focused and targeted effort to begin to build one’s “brand” and understand how to use the media effectively and probably more like a year to be able to effectively communicate one’s message to a contingent of voters.
  • There is a lot of hype around twitter and blogging: they do not help make us better people or become more engaged with our communities or make us politicians better at our jobs.

If elected, I will continue the experiment over the next 4 years and analyse how political communication trends change during that period.

7 Responses to Is there anyone listening? The Virtual Politician

  1. The trouble with the Obama effect is, he was aiming at an audience of 200m people. That needs a mass communications tool, and despite all the hype, the likes of twitter are at heart still mass communications broadcast tools.

    Try to fine tune it though, and it’s a timesink. 4000 twitter users in Ireland? Cool. But how many of them live in Dundrum? How many facebook users live in Dundrum? Probably a lot more, but its not that much easier to reach them. My personal opinion is that politicians can best use their time online to maintain their blogs. A blog is an electronic newsletter, can be quickly updated to respond to new issues, and has the benefit of some feedback from voters (though again, not all who respond will live in your constituency).

    Maintain a blog, and you’ve got yourself a low cost newsletter, without the expense of print and postage. And when you do print a dead tree circular (you still need them) use it to direct readers to your blog for more information and regular updates. But you still need to meet the voters in person. Facetime – not facebook, is still the winner.

    And you’re right, an online following doesn’t happen overnight. Obama spent four years running for president. Good luck on Friday, but if you don’t make it, start thinking now about how to build that following for the next election. don’t wait until six months before the vote.

    (And of course, you may not have six months until the next general election.)

  2. steve white says:

    your wrong, its not just about getting your name out, jeez you only started blogging on may 7th!

    ridiculous rush to judgement

    you need to make relevant comments rather then just post your link about.

    • Stephen O'Shea says:

      Steve, thanks for your comments and you are of course right. Can’t expect much in a few weeks but at this point it’s where can I get most impact so I’ll have to stick with pounding the streets for now.

  3. steve white says:

    but otherwise i like what your doing, talking the pics etc,discussing maps, take a look at for good local blog

  4. steve white says:

    ps the key to obama camapaign was email/email harvesting

  5. For some reason, the thought of ‘Twitter: The Movie’ fills me with unreasoning horror.

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