Lib Dem Voice

Is Colin Byrne right about internet campaigning?

Colin Byrne, CEO of Weber Shandwick and former Labour Party press chief, recently knocked the possible importance of internet campaigning for British elections and suggested Hazel Blears was right with her YouTube jibe.

He wrote in Saturday’s Guardian:

We surveyed 1,000 potential voters at the time of the recent party conferences. They were asked what communications channels would have an influence on deciding how to vote. When a parallel sample of consumers were asked the same question about purchasing decisions, by far the biggest influence was digital and social media (26%). Print and broadcast media ranked second in influence, with only 23%. Brand advertising scored 10%.

With our sample of UK voters the reverse was true. National and regional print and broadcast media scored a 59% influence rating. Political advertising and party broadcasts scored 10%. Blogs and social networking sites scored just 5% …

In next year’s election, “traditional” media will be overwhelmingly influential. That’s why politicians spend time with newspaper editors. Perhaps Hazel Blears had a point when she wrote in the Observer “YouTube if you want to …”.
[My emphasis]

So is he right?

I think Colin Byrne takes too narrow a view of what counts as influential. There are two respects in which internet campaigning is highly influential and which aren’t covered by the survey question. First, internet campaigning can be a very effective tool for mobilising supporters – who then campaign offline with door knocking, leaflet delivery and so on. The ability to quickly and cheaply make direct and personal contact online makes it a very effective route for motivating people. Second, the media loves picking up stories from what is being said online or about online activities. The story I’ve written this year that got to the biggest audience was a blog post which then got picked up by the BBC.

Colin Byrne’s perspective is also that of a former party chief press officer. Yes, for them and for Cabinet Ministers there is in part a choice between spending some of your finite time talking to newspaper editors and spending time talking to bloggers. But for most people in politics – including most elected politicians, let alone candidates – there is no option of talking to newspaper editors. Online campaigning can both side-step the media and influence the media and it can do it for people who have no in at senior levels in the media industry.

Moreover, his perspective seem to also be that of a Labour man. Liberal Democrats thankfully know only too well how local campaigning can overcome the national situation. If the national voting trends could not be hugely bucked in individual seats, there would not be dozens of Liberal Democrat MPs. So whilst the 59% figure for national and regional media looks impressive, we know that in reality it’s an influence that can be beaten. Indeed, given that only a minority of Parliamentary constituencies are now two-horse Labour versus Conservative races, it’s an influence that isn’t just dented here and there. It’s battered around in hundreds of individual contests. If traditional media is overwhelmingly influential, why isn’t that reflected in the reality of the contests that play out on the ground?

Finally, I’m always cautious about polls that rely on people saying what influences them. Not only are people not perfect judges of their own reasons for behaving the way they do but also people don’t always like admitting even what they do think to others. Negative campaign is a classic example. People love saying how much they dislike it and how it doesn’t move them – and yet done well and appropriately it works.

Should we trust people’s self-awareness of what changes their political preferences? Especially when there is a natural tendency to want to give decent, more rational reasons than the truth if the truth involves matters such as being influenced by someone’s personal appearance?

In particular, there are two reasons to query the survey finding. First, are the effects of the subtle type that people do not fully appreciate? For example, in my experience online campaigning, particularly blogs, Facebook and email, can be very effective at ‘humanising’ a candidate so people see them as a fellow human rather than a dreadful politician. I’m not convinced people are great at owning up to the influence of tool that makes them less likely to fall into stereotyped prejudices. Secondly, given the relatively limited reach of much online political campaigning, even now, were people rating its influence lowly because they’ve not been exposed to it?

So reasons to doubt the survey – and overall good reasons to carry on with online campaigning, locally above all.

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