Written by Katia Ponnampalam • Published 1st December 2016 • 12 minute read

Obama Campaign - Public Affairs PR The PHA Group

Image courtesy of: Jodi McKee, flickr.com

Introduction to the history of campaigning

Campaigning is an art as old as any other. Throughout history, empires, countries, as well as political leaders, have created real change in society by campaigning. Historically marches and protests were the most effective ways of initiation change e.g, Suffragettes and the Civil Rights movement in the mid 60’s who used marches to draw attention to their cause.

Other effective methods of campaigning have included the use of posters and fliers, which has been used throughout history, e,g by the British Government who used soundbites such as “The Empire Needs Men” or “Women Of Britain Say Go”, as well as  Stalin and Hitler, who used propaganda to support their campaign by stirring up emotions such as fear and anger in the general population.

As the world changed and evolved  further into the 20th century, so did  campaigning with campaigners now targeting potential supporters through the medium of television and radio. For the first time campaigners and advertisers were directly able to target their audience on television with live moving images, which not only allowed prominent figures to appeal to the masses but also allowed for almost unlimited coverage( as long as the campaign had a big enough budget).

Being able to target your audience constantly through using mass media was further revolutionised as we entered the 21st century, with the invention of the Internet. The internet’s conception did not only allow for millions of citizens to access data and information almost instantly, but it also has been instrumental in allowing campaigners and politicians to curtail their message and use multiple channels to deliver it.

In this insight, we’ll look at how campaigning has changed in recent years, and why. We’ll also establish exactly what the future is for campaigning on a mass scale, and also what challenges campaigning faces going forward.

The woman's land army of America. Women enlist now and help the farmer fight the food famine

An example of traditional campaigning. Image courtesy of: Boston Public Library, flickr.com

Reaching a campaign’s core audience

Before the internet age, it was hard to judge the effectiveness of campaigns in real time and ultimately it was even harder to reach such a wide audience. With the invention of the internet, and advancements in the fields of digital marketing and analytics, campaigners are now able (if they have the budget or know-how) to target millions or even billions of people with their message if they utilise the power of the internet successfully.

Through using social media sites (Twitter and Facebook) campaigners are not only able to target a huge amount of citizens ( 60% of US adults have a social media profile) but are  also able to target a particular  advertising message and soundbites to specific age categories. Through the use of Facebook advertising alone, if an advertiser wanted to reach a specific audience all they would need to do would be to create an advert and then the site would then ask what particular age range they wish to target say 18-25, which would then allow the campaign’s  message to be shown to Facebook users of this age bracket.

Through curtailing a message to a particular group, the Internet allows campaigners through the use of live online analytics, to instantly analyse how well their message is being received across the age bracket. Use of  advertising and analytics also further shows campaigners information such as, how many people have viewed the message ? How many people are sharing the message with their friends on the site ? And what is the general image of the campaign so far ? Are people “liking” it or are they posting negative comments instead ?

A great example which shows how successful a campaign can be if it can accurately target its core audience can be seen when looking at the Bernie Sanders campaign for president in 2016. Although Sanders did not win the election, he was able to gather a following of young people who all bought into his message of changing the system, which social media analytics firm Captiv8 argue was mainly down to the use of his online presence.

Krishna Subramanian said that through a carefully curated image and the “authentic nature of Sander’s posts and conversations” online, he was not only able to garner interest in his campaign, but was also able to directly mobilise 18-25 year olds.

Here we can see the Sanders campaign on Instagram, successfully utilizing strong visual and written cues, to appeal to the young age demographic on this site

Engaging in political campaigns

The mark of success for any campaign is the amount of people who get behind it and believe in its message and ideas. Before the 21st century to get involved in a campaign, would either involve marches or protests or signing a petition or perhaps you would go out to houses directly to spread your message. The old method of campaign engagement although successful had several drawbacks, in that many people had to dedicate a huge amount of their time to doing the tasks mentioned, such as handing out fliers and leaflets, and also even when a campaign was successful it took an extremely long time to really mobilise the numbers to a sizeable amount.

This reality of campaigning that existed in the 20th century has been transformed in the information age, with engagement now a much less time-consuming and laborious task. Now if people wish to actively participate in a campaign, instead of dedicating their Saturday morning to  canvassing like they used too, they can instead get engaged in other less time-consuming ways, such as say “retweeting” or “liking” a post, or even donating by using websites like “GoFundMe”.

It is the action of making engagement in a campaign a much less time-consuming task, that has revolutionised campaigning in the 21st century, as now most of us are perfectly happy to take a microsecond out of our day to support something we agree with, by “liking it” , or by sharing it with  one of our friends.

An example that truly shows how influential and successful  a campaign can be through ease of engagement can be seen by looking at the Ice Bucket Challenge which aimed to raise money for ALS. Through a carefully curated media campaign and ease of participation  (dumping water over your head) not only was the campaign able to mobilise millions of people across continents to their message, but they were also able to get celebrities to join in, saving millions in what otherwise would be expensive partnership deals.

Benedict Cumberbatch participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge

Funding in traditional media outlets

The success of the Internet to advertisers and campaigners has seen a dramatic shift in funding, with regard to mass media outlets such as TV, Radio, and press media. It is now commonly acknowledged that while Digital as a marketing space is growing (  over $1 billion will be spent in the US elections alone this year on digital ads) traditional media and its advertising revenues are slowly declining. The Guardian reported similar, that while sales in digital were booming, this was not the same picture with regard to print media who in 2016 saw losses of 11% with the amount of advertisements run in British Newspapers.

This idea that campaigning advertising is shifting online, can be seen when looking at the Independent’s decision in 2016 to stop producing physical copies of its newspaper, with one of the reasons simply being print advertising was no longer sustainable.

This reality that campaigners and advertisers are moving away from traditional forms of media is also mirrored when looking at radio advertising, which in the United States this year was down $17.4 billion on the year before. As this insight has already explored the reasons for this shift to online in simple, not only  are advertisers able to appeal to more people directly than they are in traditional media, but they are also able to track the live reaction to the campaign via live commentary sites such as Reddit, Facebook and Twitter.

Reasons like these help to explain why, while newspaper sales and radio sales are down, companies like Facebook and Instagram continue to increase in popularity and worth almost yearly.  Furthermore, the power of social media and online commentary to enact change  can also be seen recently by looking at the “fake news epidemic” and how Facebook has been accused of swinging the election due to the promotion of untrue sources.

Negative effects to the changes in Campaigning: Public Image and Crisis Management

While it is true that the internet allows organisations, advertising and campaigners to reach millions of potential customers/supporters, with this mass audience also comes the potential risk for something to go wrong incredibly quickly, which could have devastating effects on a brand, business, campaign or individual. It is not hard to find examples online, where something an individual or a company has done which has not been perceived well by the general public, has led to an absolute destruction of their public image on social media.

One particular example which shows how bad the impact a negative event can have to a campaign, or say a political movement can be seen when looking at the former U.S congressman Anthony Weiner. Before the scandal,  Weiner was an up and coming figure with thousands of supporters online eagerly supporting not only his work in Congress, where he was helping to campaign on issues such as gun control and abortion but also supported the man himself who was viewed as a fresh of breath air by many.

Consequently, it was found that the congressman has sent intimate details of himself to a former prostitute, which led to the complete annihilation of his once good public image online and his political campaign. A case such as this shows what damage a negative act can have on someone’s online presence, as in the case of Weiner, not only was he subjected to these images being placed online, but this also led to the destruction of his once positive image and the complete destruction of his political objectives such as running for Mayor of New York.

Anthony Weiner, Campaign Disaster

Image Courtesy of: Stephen Nessen, flickr.com

More evidence of the harm the internet and social media can pose to campaigns can also be seen  when looking at Hillary Clinton and her email scandal, which some say irrevocably damaged her campaign, as well as Donald Trump’s “grab them by the *****” “ which damaged his polling figures in the short term. Furthermore unlike before where a negative action of a company or individual might be printed in a newspaper for a week, on the internet, it is there forever, and could permanently destroy a campaign’s message domestically and even internationally if it becomes viral.

Inability to completely control the campaign’s message

As we have explored throughout the blog, the internet offers so many opportunities for those wishing to embark on a successful campaign, from raising the level of engagement, to being able to carefully craft an advertising strategy for whichever age group you wish to target. However, besides the risk of reputation and crisis management, there is also the risk that the internet could take a campaign dangerously off message and misleading statements could damage the reputation of your campaign.

While in print and traditional media ,defamatory statements can be challenged in the courts or withdrawn, this is not as simple as it seems with regard to online media. The possibility that fake news or negative stories about your campaign could go viral is a very real danger and if left unchecked could absolutely destroy any initial goals the campaign has with regard to public image or engagement by its audience.

An excellent example of an online campaign going completely out of control and off message can be seen when looking at the “Name Our New Drink” campaign run by Mountain Dew energy drinks. In this particular example, they asked the public to name their new drink, and whatever the public picked this would be chosen. However, due to the power and speed of the internet, the campaign was hijacked by internet jokesters who were able to push the most popular name of the new drink too “Hitler did nothing wrong”- as well as other inflammatory statements, and in the end, Mountain Dew had to suspend its campaign.

Boaty McBoatface Campaign - Political PR The PHA Group

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by the Natural Environment Research Council.

Another infamous example of where a campaign has gone off message due to social media.

Conclusion to the future of campaigning

In this piece, we’ve explored how the art of campaigning is changing, from the days of newspaper advertising and posters to now in the modern day, where campaigns are fought over who can get the most followers, likes and hashtags. As we have established the future of campaigning looks exciting in many ways, with the possibility to mobilise millions to a cause all at the click of the button, and the opportunity to carefully craft an image to whichever age bracket you wish to attract to your cause. We’ve also looked at some of the recent successes of campaigning in the 21st century such as Bernie Sanders and his amazing campaigning which dedicated millions of young people to his cause.

However, we’ve also looked at the negative aspects that come from campaigning in the new digital era, whether that be from how quickly a campaign can go wrong online when a negative story arises, to how a campaign can fundamentally be hijacked by the internet; leading to not only a failure to remain in control of a campaign’s message but also most likely the failure of any gains the campaign may have made.

In conclusion, the future of campaigning looks exciting, and if properly managed has the potential to reshape how we communicate and speak with each other on a variety of different issues, however, it is important to remember the pitfalls of when campaigning goes wrong, and just how damaging these pitfalls can be.