Lessons from Gordon Brown’s use of YouTube

Gordon Brown’s recent foray into YouTube in order to promote his plans for reforming MPs’ expenses has been widely panned. So what lessons should be drawn by anyone thinking of using YouTube to strengthen the communication of a message in future?

First, YouTube can be very powerful (think just how much mainstream media coverage the clip got) but it shouldn’t be over-prioritised. As Matthew Parris points out in The Times, Gordon Brown recorded the clip before even consulting his Cabinet about the reform plans. Scheduling time to get new media content ready in advance of a big announcement is a good move, but what really matters is spending enough time on getting the contents of the announcement right. Substance still matters.

Second, the production qualities (lighting, sound, focus etc) are high. But they don’t matter that much. It’s the look on Gordon Brown’s face and the words coming out of his mouth that gave the film the impact it did. Going from ok to high quality production values often takes a disproportionately large amount of extra resources. Perhaps for a Prime Minister it has to be that way, but as others such as Rob Fenwick, Luke Pollard and Lynne Featherstone have demonstrated, you can use basic production qualities to produce effective films. (I’ll let you judge for yourself whether you think my own films such as this one where I confess to suspicious terrorist activity are a success.)

Third, you have to have someone slightly detached from the production process who can say, “No, that isn’t good enough.” I’ve once (thankfully, only once) produced a YouTube clip for the Liberal Democrats which really wasn’t good enough to go out, but everyone involved in the process got so sucked in to worrying about which take to use, when to release the film etc that we lost sight of whether overall the quality was good enough.

Particularly once you’ve stared at footage several times as you trim bits of the start and end, it’s very easy to lose sight of what the footage will look like to someone coming to it fresh. In Gordon Brown’s case, well – try watching the clip with the sound off. It’s weird. Not just the apparently random smiling through the film, but also the fact that there is so much smiling at all. Watched without the sound you’d guess it might be about perhaps congratulation some sporting winners, not about a serious and dour subject such as MPs’ expenses. So you need someone who can watch it and say, “Sorry, but no”.

So the lessons? Get the substance right, don’t over-fixate on production qualities (this is YouTube after all) and get an outside view on whether the quality is good enough.

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