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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

No Filter: The Net as a Tool for Upstart Campaigns

Posted by Tim Tagaris

When an underdog campaign gets started, it generally has a difficult time taking the fight to opponent(s), a negligible ability to impact the daily mainstream media cycle, and often lacks the staff and organizational tools to effectively talk with the grassroots (ie. ground game).

Fortunately, it's a brave new world.

Some of you might have read what I consider the first piece in what I hope becomes a series based on my campaign experiences: "My ATM Pin Number: Or Online Fundraising." If not, you can check it out HERE, but not until after you finish reading this full entry. Deal?

It is a collection of observations I had while working Communications/Online Outreach for Jeff Seemann's Congressional campaign. The writing is mostly about the ill-informed belief in "political circles," that the Internet is good for one thing, fundraising. It also touches upon what I believe are good practices and how treating the Netroots as an ATM Machine simply will not work.

This piece will focus on some of my early observations while working on Chuck Pennacchio's U.S. Senate campaign in Pennsylvania. It will focus on some of the tactics we have used to propel a previously unknown candidate into a national spotlight, get the statewide media to pay attention to us, recruit staff, and disseminate our message throughout the blogosphere.

There are a lot of great progressive candidates out there that continue to get shunned by the party establishment across the country (Jeff Smith 2004 comes to mind). While I wish I could work for every single one of them, I can't. I do, however, hope that there is something in this post, or the ATM one, that people on sites like Swing State Project, Kos, MyDD, or wherever you are reading this can take to the candidates you support, regardless of who might pretend they don't exist.

There Is No Filter

One of the biggest problems that insurgent campaigns have is making that initial splash, and getting something about their campaign, or their opponents, into the news.

On February 22, 2005, Rick Santorum was in the midst of criss-crossing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania when he stopped at Drexel University. As he was walking into the event, his youthful idealistic supporters (College Republicans) serenaded the Senator with chants of "hey hey, ho ho Social Security has got to go."

The event ended innocuously enough. Most of the attendees walked away remembering two LaRouchies getting carted out by security for disrupting the proceedings. That changed the next day when the video of the serenade went live on the website of a previously unknown U.S. Senate candidate. So unknown, in fact, that most of the bloggers who originally linked to the piece were hesitant to even include the candidates name. However, because of the event, many of us know about him now.

Maybe I buried the lede a bit here, but the most important point here is that with the Internet, there is no filter. I'll say it again, there is no filter. You don't have to wait for some traditional press-type hack to pick up your message; your ability to inform the public has a direct relationship with the time, effort, originality, and investment you are willing to make in the non-traditional medium.

In our case, we went to the event, shot it, stumbled upon the clip, and used every means necessary to get it into the public spotlight. As it happened, MyDD picked it up, then Atrios, then Kos and Talking Points Memo, 60 plus blogs linked it, MoveOn put it in an email, and Paul Krugman talked about it in the New York Times.

What's really interesting about that story is that CNN sat on the footage they had of the chant for over 24 hours. By then, they were scooped--scooped by a little known campaign and an armada of bloggers who recognized that the media filter of old is just that, part of the old-guard.

The same can be said (to a lesser extent) with the poll that Rick Santorum yanked from his website when people weighed in at a clip of approx. 90% against Social Security Privatization. He yanked it, one of our supporters "screen-shotted it," we had it on our site, and the next thing you know, Raw Story and Roll Call were writing about it.

We have all of the tools we need online to dictate to the mainstream media the issues we see as important. If there is information "good enough," we are more than capable of catapulting it into the national spotlight.

The Power of the Internet Distilled Locally (Press Part II)

"Yeah, yeah, that's great, but how has that event produced tangible results outside of web hits for the campaign?"

Fair question. In short, it helped to legitimize our effort. It showed that we are not afraid to take the fight to Rick Santorum. Alright, tangible results? It proved to national and local press that the campaign is one that deserves to be taken seriously and in conjunction with our "standard" Netroots outreach, and subsequent support, has opened up the door to numerous main stream press opportunities.

Let me take a step back, because this part of the piece veers off in two directions.

1.) Getting the Mainstream Media to take you seriously

On the day Bobby Casey Jr. announced his run for the United States Senate seat in Pennsylvania, I made numerous phone calls to newspapers and radio stations across the state to let them know this is NOT an uncontested primary. Some covered us, some did not. One call in particular stuck out in my head.

It was a phone call to the Associated Press. In the call I was basically challenged to legitimize the campaign. Forget the fact that we have filed with the FEC, are raising money, have a staff, HQ, and hundreds of volunteers. My explanation wasn't good enough. Not only did the article not include Chuck's name, but the author included quotes from sources that indicated their would be no primary challenge.

Wrong answer.

That weekend, the grassroots/netroots supporters of our campaign took action. We put out a call to our local supporters, it was up on the front page of MyDD, Atrios, AmericaBlog, and in the diaries of DailyKos (as well as the campaign blog). If I had to guess, the AP probably received over 200 emails and over 50 phone calls from Pennsylvanians and others across the country. Whatever the number was, the wire service let us know that, we probably "over-reacted," but at the same time, they "got the message."

One week later the AP was at our first Philadelphia organizational meeting the next weekend, and since then has been very receptive to our campaign and even informed us of the best way to get our information to them.

Just another power of the grassroots/netroots that has nothing to do with money: Collective action online can spur results offline.

2.) When the Mainstream Media Notices Your Efforts

You can't badger every reporter across the state with your grassroots/netroots supporters. That in itself would be an organization feat. But what campaigns have to realize is that breaking ground/stories online will lead to coverage offline in the mainstream media. This will take us back to the Santorum "hey hey, ho ho" video.

Example: The Philadelphia Inquirer has the largest circulation in Pennsylvania. You can imagine my initial outreach to them after the Casey announcement was an important moment in campaign HQ.

I was eventually given the contact information of a reporter who would be covering the 2006 U.S. Senate race. After a brief introduction and discussion about the campaign and it's progress, I brought up the Santorum video. The reporter responded, "That was you guys?" I can tell you, because I was on the phone, that was the moment the conversation turned. The Inquirer will be running a full feature piece on Chuck this weekend. They have also assured us they are very interested in our campaign. They have done so through their words, and they are about to do so in deed this weekend.

Not only that, but the reporter also wants to investigate the way we are using the Internet to reach out directly to voters. Even more earned media! And earned media about the "novel idea" of a candidate talking directly with voters. Imagine that. The Net will also generate earned media, which is a HUGE problem for most upstart candidates and campaigns. With the Dean campaign, and since then, a lot of the press attention has focused on how much money someone can raise online. Once again, the world is changing. You don't even have to raise $40 million dollars for someone to talk about the exciting new ways a campaign will use to reach out to voters.

Viral Blogging

The first I saw of it on such a large scale was thereisnocrisis.com (TINC). Matt, Josh, and Bob put up that graphic that people were given the code to syndicate on their own blogs and websites. Next thing you knew, over 600 bloggers had it up on their own site, directing traffic to TINC. So, by the order of the mighty scoop, we copied the idea with Chuck's campaign.

You will notice on our website, we include instructions on how to place our graphic on your blog or website, I can tell you, as the guy that looks at the web statistics a few times a day--this has been quite a success. Dozens of bloggers (from large to small) have taken us up on the offer and the results, in terms of hits, show.

Now of course, any old candidate can put up a syndication link on their own website, but that doesn't mean bloggers are going to take them up on the offer. The first place I would point candidates and campaigns to is the piece I linked above on the ATM Machine. While placing the graphic on a blog might not seem like a big deal to "seasoned operative," to me, I take it as something pretty serious. I know how people feel about their blogs, and it means a lot to me, and the campaign, every time I see a Pennacchio for Pennsylvania banner out there.

The Greatest Medium for Rapid Response

I am already getting pretty long-winded, and I still have something to ask of you at the end of this email. I will toss out some links if you are inclined to keep reading after the next few paragraphs. I would be remiss if I didn't address the rapid response capabilities of the Internet. But what I want to talk about specifically is the use of Internet Advertising as a rapid response tool.

Sure, anyone can get online and create a regurgitated press release that poses as a thoughtful diary, and some do. It's a great idea, and I am sure that we will see more and more campaigns doing so in the upcoming election cycle. I would argue that it's not the best strategy for outreach, but what the hell. They will do it anyway.

That said, one of the greatest tools online in terms of versatility, speed, and targeting is advertising. Specifically, Blog Ads.

The founder of BlogAds, Henry Copeland recently cited our use of Blog Ads to promote a conference call we had with local bloggers, and some of their subsequent reactions. Here is what Henry said,

Another cutting edge ad. It doesn't ask for an action or a "buy." It provides content, information, newsy stuff people actually might enjoy using. Rather than trying to megaphone its message over the community, this advertiser is engaging the blogosphere and using blogads to facilitate that communication.

But back to the speed part of the message.

Remember when the Democrats introduced the "Sense of the Senate?" That one line that said we shouldn't make massive cuts into Social Security benefits or incur serious debt in its "reform?" Well, Rick Santorum voted that down. Within hours, people were calling for ads against Republicans who voted against the "sense."

So, we took our BlogAds, and turned it into an ad against Santorum's vote. How did this help? Well, I can tell you that a couple thousand more people know for sure that Rick Santorum is pro-massive debt and benefit cuts. I can also tell you that it helped prove to even more that we are willing to take the fight to Rick Santorum on important issues. People noticed.

That's about it for now. This has already dragged on entirely too long, but I will write more later. Also, this message was truncated from its original format, because the original piece was a campaign communication. If I have left anything in here that asks you to do anything for the Pennacchio complain, ignore it.



Posted at 07:27 PM in Activism, Netroots | Technorati