A PIONEER in online communications, Vincent Harris, the founder and CEO of Harris Media, has advised some of the most prominent elected officials and business leaders in the United States since 2004. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Harris about the growing importance of the use of the internet in political campaigns and in engaging potential voters through social media.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): How would you describe the influence of social media and community-based internet sites in political campaigning?
Vincent Harris (VH): Social media continues to grow in importance in campaigns in America and across the world. It’s a great tool to deliver a message, spread content such as videos, and recruit volunteers.
TSS: What is the most effective digital tool to gain political influence among the public?
VH: Online advertising is the most effective in gaining data on people and utilising the data to communicate. Second to online advertising would be the use of Facebook.
TSS: How important is creating an authentic digital brand and digital identity for a political party or a political leader?
VH: Authenticity is critical. People can spot a generic robotic candidate online from miles away! While any intern can update a Facebook page, they shouldn’t be [doing that for the candidate]. People expect their leaders to be honest with them and divulge some information through social media, just as the average person would. Candidates and elected officials need to let their guard down more and engage with people in average conversation.
TSS: Have you had a chance to assess the campaigns of political parties in Slovakia? What are your impressions? Are there huge differences in the imagery and the types of messages used?
VH: Some, yes. From what I’ve seen the main political parties are on Facebook and have websites but are only engaging Slovaks in a one-way conversation. This is SOCIAL media and candidates and campaigns need to remember that. The now-ruling Smer party should be credited with using some visuals on their Facebook page, including posting a map of the election results by district showcasing their landslide victory.
TSS: Your team was among the first to use Facebook applications and games to promote political candidates while collecting important data about supporters and using them to reach new voters. What feedback did you get from using these kinds of tactics?
VH: Facebook applications and games are a fantastic way to engage voters online. Not only are you able to spread your political message but you can gain important data points on voters. We received great feedback, voters like politics being fun and entertaining. I would highly recommend political parties and campaigns look at adopting similar tactics in Slovakia.
TSS: What advice would you give to a politician that would like to start his or her own party from scratch? What advertising tactics would you choose?
VH: My advice would be to figure out a niche issue that differentiates them from the other parties. With so many options here in Slovakia it will take message discipline and a populist issue to rise above the many established parties. Television advertising is still a critical piece of a campaign but it’s all about resources. If a new party has less money, it might be more cost effective to use the internet to target a niche group of voters with a niche issue to try and reach the 5–percent threshold to gain seats. The internet is much cheaper than television and print and the ability to target is much better.
TSS: In the Slovak electoral campaign, a recently created party called 99 Percent – Civic Voice invested a large amount of money (€1.4 million) in its campaign but won only 1.58 percent of the vote. A relatively small budget (€283,000) by comparison was enough to win another party, Smer, 44.4 percent. How would you assess these differences concerning resources spent on the campaign?
VH: Money doesn’t equal votes. Smer was obviously selling the right brand at the time and future Prime Minister [Robert] Fico deserves credit for running what was obviously a very successful campaign. Oftentimes, parties without credibility or that aren’t a known quantity need to spend more money to equalise the press attention and name recognition that exists for established parties. That could be one reason why 99 Percent needed to spend so much but wasn’t able to do well at the ballot box.
TSS: How do you envision the future of political campaigning via digital media?
VH: Every passing election brings about an increasingly important role for the web in political campaigns. The future of campaigns will involve a larger share of media budgets being spent online and campaigns spending large amounts of time communicating with and connecting with voters online. Digital media changes frequently so campaigns should read sites like Mashable.com and TechCrunch.com and keep up with the newest trends. The return on investment in the digital space is much higher than in many other aspects of campaigns and I expect campaigns to realise this moving forward, and allocate resources appropriately.
Harris, who began by writing a blog that quickly became very popular among politicians and opinion-formers in Virginia, USA, served as a specialist in online communications in the 2008 presidential campaign of Governor Mike Huckabee; his firm was recently hired by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in his bid for the 2012 presidential nomination in the Republican Party.