The Intersection: Jun 2011

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Online Advocacy’s New Role in Leading, Legislating & Governing

When I first began working on campaigns in 2000, the Internet was hardly a blip on the political radar screen.  In 2004, as an advance man for John Kerry, I watched as insurgent primary candidate Howard Dean harnessed that technology to generate grassroots enthusiasm and collect financial contributions from primary voters throughout the country.

At the same time, the traditional media began covering the race extensively online and bloggers generated content around the clock, requiring campaigns to respond nearly in real time. The rules were beginning to change.

In 2008, as then-Senator Barack Obama’s political director in New Hampshire, I had a front row seat as Obama for America embraced and thrived in this new online media environment.  The Obama campaign created the “new normal” for the utilization of digital and social media both to speak directly with voters and to empower them with the tools to engage, participate and organize on their own.

The ascendancy and importance of new media, however, is no longer confined to the campaign trail.  The up-to-the-minute world of cable news and the instantaneous nature of digital and social media requires that “campaign-style” communicating never ends.  Indeed, the tools and tactics of a campaign are increasingly an indispensible component of leading, legislating and governing.

For example, during this year’s legislative session in Maine, House Speaker John Nutting and Senate President Kevin Raye launched Maine Is Open for Business, an online portal dedicated to advancing their pro-business regulatory reform agenda.  In addition to the website, they launched a corresponding Facebook account.  These online properties, just as in a political campaign, are an attempt to educate voters and recruit them to take action that directly supported their policy priorities.

The leaders’ digital gambit shows their recognition that elected officials must communicate with and engage constituents where they are: online.  But it is also a cautionary tale about the effective utilization of these platforms.  Despite a digitally engaged opposition and a strong launch, Nutting and Raye largely allowed their properties to wither on the digital vine.  In doing so, they sacrificed the expansive organizational power of the medium and saw much of their reform agenda pared back or abandoned during the legislative session.  Their experience proves that simply launching a website or a Facebook page is not enough.  Recruiting, educating and mobilizing supportive voices requires the creation of unique, compelling and regularly-updated content.

When it is done right, however, the power of online organizing to advance political agendas is unmistakable.  As battles over its funding raged in state capitols and Washington, Planned Parenthood Federation used a combination of online ads, social media campaigns, and direct e-mails to motivate over 800,000 people to contact their representatives in support of the organization.  One pundit commented that the campaign “[awakened] a sleeping giant.”  Similar efforts mobilized voters on both sides of labor battles in states across the country. Facebook, Twitter and other social media have been essential to advancing protest movements in the “Arab Spring” and in China.

But there is more to elected officials’ embrace of digital media than simply communicating with citizens online. It is a recognition that the long-worn modalities of legislating and policy-making are changing in Washington, D.C. and state capitols around the country.  The days of smoke-filled rooms and lobbyist-driven legislating are gradually giving way to citizen-driven legislating.  Legislative leaders are now actively pursuing public grassroots support for their agendas, recognizing that, without it, they will be unsuccessful.  Indeed, an honest lobbyist will tell you that a groundswell of calls, letters, and e-mails are far more impactful (especially to those seeking re-election) than any talking points whispered under the dome.

And it is not only legislative leaders who deploy these digital grassroots tools to influence policy making.  Two operatives from Maine Governor Paul LePage’s campaign who remain close with the administration recently launched  Taking its name from the Governor’s oft-repeated campaign slogan, the site is dedicated to advancing the Governor’s legislative agenda by digitally raising the voices of supportive Maine citizens.  The site is filled with language urging visitors to get involved, volunteer, contact their elected officials, and take action.  It is clear that the Governor also recognizes that digital engagement is essential to legislative success and that online tools are an indispensible vehicle for mobilizing supporters once in office.

As more Mainers – and more Americans – turn to the Internet for their news and information, any organization committed to influencing legislative or regulatory outcomes will need to deploy online, campaign-style engagement tools to succeed.  The entry of elected leaders into this space is evidence of the changing legislative environment and the indispensible role digital and social media now play in leading, legislating and governing.