Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Greater Sudbury Election Notes, Part 1: Social Media Use So Far

Throughout the 2015 municipal election campaign, I’ll be posting a series of short pieces on items which have caught my attention. In Greater Sudbury, there are already dozens of candidates who have stepped forward to run for Mayor and in the 12 Ward races, yet there has been little talk about some of the issues and ideas which many of these candidates have been discussing – discussions largely limited to just themselves.

Our local mainstream media simply doesn’t have the resources to follow the ward campaigns in any detail – and with only one mainstream candidate, current Ward 5 Councillor Ron Dupuis, having declared for position of Mayor so far, coverage of city-wide election issues has been fairly light (although well-funded ultra-right-wing fringe candidate Dan Melanson, the former talking head of the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association – essentially the Conservative Party at the Municipal level – stirred things up a little bit with last week’s announcement that he’ll be seeking the Mayor’s chair – and stirred up his anonymous right-wing social media minions to publicly abandon our current Mayor, Marianne Matichuk – it was truly a sight to behold as anonymous Con trolls twisted themselves up in pretzel knots to publicly disown Matichuk after years of uncritical support).

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, social media forums have been pretty quiet too, even though a number of candidates are on two of social media’s most popular sites, Facebook and Twitter. It may be that some of the candidates don’t use social media as part of their day-to-day communicating in the real world, and haven’t therefore transitioned into using it as part of their campaign. Or it may be that social media really isn’t the best way of connecting with local residents for municipal ward races, particularly in a City such as Greater Sudbury where ward boundaries don’t make much sense.

Ward 9's Aaron Beaudry

A couple of candidates, however, have been standouts with their use of social media, in my opinion. Ward 9 candidate Aaron Beaudry has been actively trying to engage people through Twitter. From what I’ve seen of Beaudry, he’s using Twitter in a way that the social media tool was meant to be used – yes, a number of his tweets are “broadcast” type tweets, but he intersperses those with engaging tweets that ask questions about local issues. He also provides his followers with personal insights about himself and his family. And Beaudry often engages with other tweeters on the issues. Of all the candidates running for election in Greater Sudbury, Aaron Beaudry is the stand-out Twitter user.

My only complaint about Beaudry’s Twitter use is that, early on in his campaign, he decided to block me, likely because I made a disparaging remark about his refusal to publicly discuss on Twitter some of the ideas that he was broadcasting. I called him out for responding to a couple of tweets with “call me and we’ll discuss” responses, rather than engaging with tweeters on Twitter. Blocking critics probably isn’t the best Twitter strategy to employ – but at least Beaudry has generated enough interest on Twitter to actually have critics. As for the other candidates, Twitter has been a bit of a wasteland – so far.

Robert Kirwan's "Long Game" in Ward 5

Robert Kirwan is the other social media maven stand-out in the election campaign so far – and perhaps an unlikely one. Kirwan’s strategy has been to play the long-game. As a an elected Trustee for the Rainbow District School Board, Kirwan has been through the election campaign ringer before. Kirwan is also the founder of the locally popular “Valley East Today” website – a website which whisks its users back to the pre-amalgamation glory days of Valley East through an interface that screams for 1997’s Netscape Navigator. Kirwan also administers the popular Valley East Today Facebook Group (yes, Facebook still has groups), has over 1,500 subscribers, and a fair bit of active commentary.

After years of building local followers, Kirwan has been using both the Valley East Today website and Facebook group to push his campaign. Indeed, according to information available on the City of Greater Sudbury's website, when Kirwan registered to run for Ward 5, he listed his official campaign site as – I can’t help but wonder what the local businesses and church groups who sponsor that site think about it having been turned, in part, into a campaign site seemingly overnight – or how Kirwan might be accounting for their financial contributions towards the maintenance of what is now his campaign website – but those are questions for another day.

Today’s point is that through the use of both the Valley East Today website and Facebook group, Kirwan has posted a significant amount of content – including video files of his CKLU radio show, “The Learning Clinic”, on which this year he has been discussing municipal issues with other election candidates. Kirwan has also created a space on this website where he has invited other candidates in Wards 5 and 6 (the two wards which cover the former Town of Valley East) to share their thoughts on local issues. Right now, only candidate Kirwan has uploaded any opinions on the issues – which is good for those who want to find out his thoughts on things such as transit in the Valley or the Barrydowne Extension.

It may be the lack of participation of the other candidates on Kirwan’s site is because, well, why on earth would another candidate choose to post materials to a website under the complete control of one’s opponent? Or for that matter, why would another candidate want to try force their own opinions into narrow boxes as defined by one’s opponent? If I were running a campaign, I would advise my candidate to avoid this kind of pigeon-holing like the plague.

Of course, not participating will provide Kirwan with ammunition that his opponents simply don’t want to engage on the real issues – and what candidate wouldn’t like to go to the voters during a canvass and tell them, “I gave my opponents an opportunity to comment on specific issues. I even created a safe space for them to do so. But they apparently don’t care enough about you to tell you themselves what they think of the issues.” All of this is a brilliant campaign play by Kirwan, no doubt. But it just may simply be that every other candidate in Wards 5 and 6 have such low social media profiles that they simply just haven’t even considered taking up Kirwan on his offer.

So, while Kirwan is using the Valley East Today website as a repository of information about his campaign, he’s been using the Valley East Facebook Group to engage with local area residents – many of whom will be able to cast ballots for him in Ward 5. Kirwan is a regular poster on the group site, and he often discusses issues of importance to the community, some of which likely aren’t election issues. Certainly his posts showcase his commitment to the community – but posts which strategically promote him, his radio show and his campaign website are intermixed throughout. And that's part of a successful social media strategy to use during an election campaign.

Kirwan’s long-game strategy is a brilliant one, in my opinion. Build a loyal base of followers for whatever reason, and then when the election is called, shift gears and use the vehicles you’ve built to promote yourself and your campaign. A lot of politicians do just that – often they do it instinctively, building a base of followers even before they ever think of running for office. Really, there’s nothing wrong with it. One of the tricks here is to remain engaged with your followers at times when the issues you’ve built your base around quiet down.

Transitioning From Real Person to Political Candidate

The other trick is how best to transition from “activist” or “community builder” to “candidate” using the vehicles you’ve constructed. Former popular radio show host John Tory recently went through this conundrum when he announced his bid for Toronto’s Mayor’s chair and stepped down as radio show host. Tory changed his radio-host Twitter handle but retained his followers, rather than starting a brand new political account. No doubt that irked some of his radio-show listeners who were following him on Twitter for that reason – but likely most followers didn’t mind, or were even pleased that he stopped waffling and just got on with the next phase of his own not-exactly-secret long-game election strategy.

Some might consider Tory’s Twitter transition unethical, having amassed followers for one reason (radio show) which he then intended on “exploiting” for another reason (election campaign). But I believe that in today’s day and age, our online presence has become so integrated into our real lives that one need not compromise their Twitter presence (or presence throughout social media) out of a misguided sense of equity. Social media users can abandon an individual with minimal hurt feelings and relative ease. If you don’t like what John Tory is now doing on Twitter, or what Robert Kirwan is doing on Facebook, simply unfollow or unsubscribe.

Twitter and Facebook are one thing, though - what about one's "web presence" on other social media sites, such as the comment pages of mainstream media? If anything, the transition in these realms can be a lot easier because of their transitory nature. One day, you're commenting about cats and beer, and the next you've filed your papers and you're slamming the municipal tax rate - really, it's no biggee. As a candidate, you might find it useful to continue to write about cats and beer, just to add that "personal touch".

Websites, however, might create some problems. Unlike social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, when you register a url for a website, that site is under your exclusive control. You're not boxed in about how you communicate in the same way that you are with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. You pay for the privelege of hosting your site, but the privilege lets you control the content to a much greater extent. If you don't like comments made on your website, you can delete them in a way that Aaron Beaudry can't delete my comments about his ideas on Twitter. And of course since candidates pay for maintaining a website, they claim it as a campaign expense.

If you have your own url that you've been using for your personal business or some sort of hobby slash interest, it may be very unnerving to transition that website to a campaign site. Again, if you've got a lot of information about cats and beer on your website, regular traffic is likely to come to expect that and will be surprised to discover your rants about municipal taxes. Of course, replacing an under-utilized website about cats holus bolus with a campaign website at the same url, well, sometimes that makes a lot more sense and no one notices.

When you try to use an existing website for your campaign, look out for the alligators! Ward 5 candidate Robert Kirwan has tried to find some balance on his existing website, but I'm not certain that it's working. Campaign links and election materials have filtered onto the main page, giving the site the confused appearance. As far as campaign websites go, it's a strange one, with links to local website sponsors such as "Hanson Family Dentistry", "Heatwave Tanning Salon" and "St. Kevin's Catholic Church". The website also contains a prominent links to a municipal publication, the City of Greater Sudbury's Leisure Guide - a link with a visual that includes the City's corporate logo. Very strange indeed to see something like that on a campaign website.

Of course, wasn't developed as a campaign site, but rather a community services site, in part to promote local businesses and in part to promote some of Robert Kirwan's own local initiatives, such as his radio show, "Concussion Management Partners Inc." and "the Sudbury Wellness Group", both of which are business ventures Kirwan is involved with. The current mix of campaigning and community information is a curious one, and may ultimately provide some headaches for Kirwan the candidate when he files his financials after the election, and for Kirwan the business person when local businesses start to realize that they've been funding a candidate's campaign site in preference to other local individuals who are seeking office.

Social Media - How Effective?

All of this brings me back to my earlier point, though: just how effective is social media for running as a candidate in a municipal election campaign? Given the large number of candidates in Greater Sudbury’s election so far, and given that many of them are on both Twitter and Facebook, we could expect to see a level of engagement happening amongst the candidates and voters, or even just amongst candidates themselves. So far, there has been little evidence of either occurring – and that may have a lot to do with the ways in which the candidates are using these social media tools.

That might change somewhat with Dan Melanson – who brings with him a team of Conservative Party-trained social media minions who have no problems talking about the issues amongst themselves, either anonymously on MSM websites, or as real people on Facebook (they’ve yet to prove themselves on Twitter, though). I fully expect that these minions will start engaging one another and flinging the mud around – and it might start to get noticed a little by the broader public. But a lot of time and effort will no doubt be expended, with questionable results achieved.

At the end of the day, I can’t help but feel that social media will largely remain a sideshow in this year’s municipal election. Sure, anonymous trolls might drive some mainstream media coverage of particular issues, but for candidates the tried and true ways of building support remain the best options: knock on doors, talk to people face-to-face, and put up a lot of election signs to attract the attention of passers-by (who will equate the number of signs they see with relative popularity).

Sure, I agree with a recent Sudbury Star column that an online presence is a basic requirement for any political candidate (see, “Social media a political must-have”, the Sudbury Star, April 3, 2014), but it becomes a less efficient tool for communicating when you scale down the potential number of voters. In municipal ward races, where the number of potential voters is counted in the thousands, not the 10s of thousands, and where voter turn-out is often less than 60%, and where older people who are less likely to be social media users are more likely to cast ballots than younger social media users, social media just isn’t as important – yet. And candidates simply can’t do it alone – they need to develop teams of users (or at least multiple aliases) who can retweet and engage with their social media accounts, in order to create the perception of popularity.

Of course, just as the number of lawn signs really isn’t indicative of real popularity, nor is the number of Twitter followers. But both lawn signs and Twitter followers can create the sense of popularity. By way of example, Ward 12 candidate Tay Butt has 1,149 followers on Twitter (the most of any Greater Sudbury municipal election candidate), and his opponent, Councillor Josceylne Landry-Altmann isn’t even on Twitter – which is the more popular?

Of course, if you deconstruct Butt’s Twitter account, it quickly becomes apparent that those “following” Butt aren’t going to be able to cast a ballot for him because they don’t reside in his Ward (or the City for that matter, and many aren’t actually “real people” at all anyway) – but 1,149 followers! Wow! Certainly makes me jealous (I currently have only 530 – but I’m not running for anything).

Amassing followers and “Likes” is both important and unimportant – which is why social media should play a role in any successful election campaign, but it's only one part of a communications strategy. If you’re going to use it, though, use it well - playing the social media engagement game is more complicated than firing off the occasional tweet, and requires more than just one personal Twitter account or Facebook page. So sure, social media is important, but it certainly ought not to be relied on by a candidate as the primary means of getting the message out. Unless you’ve already made an investment in the social media long-game like Bob Kirwan or John Tory, your reach on social media isn’t going to take you far – even if you, like Aaron Beaudry, are able to use it well.

Better just to start knocking on doors – now.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

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