As the Conservative Party prepares to complete the conference season in Manchester on Monday and launches the online campaigning tool, myconservatives.com, (seen here in Beta form), PR Media Blog put questions to Jeremy Hunt, Shadow Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport and Spokesman for Online Campaigning. The questions and answers were supplied in written form and have been reproduced as such.
PR Media Blog: The Tories are way ahead in the polls. Does it matter what the party does online between now and election day?
Jeremy Hunt: While the Party is currently ahead in the opinion polls, the only poll that matters is on General Election day and we’re taking absolutely nothing for granted.
In terms of our online efforts, we’re the only party that has committed consistent time, effort and resource into online communications since the last General Election, and you can be sure that digital will continue to play a massive part of our engagement with voters.
PRMB: David Cameron has been dismissive of Twitter where people in the other parties have embraced it as a communications tool. Is he worried that encouraging Tory MPs to use it would be too uncontrollable and risk re-toxifying the Conservative brand?
JH: Twitter is the fashionable tool of choice at the moment, but as Thomas Gensemer of Blue State Digital said: “Services like Twitter are scattershot and dizzying. They burn political capital. Besides, they don’t talk to the people you want to talk to.”
It’s OK using Twitter if, like Grant Shapps, you already have an email list of over 10,000 local residents with whom you can communicate directly. But many Labour and LibDem MPs have a totally disproportionate attitude to it – how many of Kerry McCarthy’s constituents are on Twitter? I’d be amazed if it was over 10%.
It’s not fear of Twitter by any stretch of the imagination – our Party account has more followers than Labour and the LibDems combined, and several public facing staffers are on there too and constantly engaging with people – it’s rather that our MPs and Candidates focus on the digital activities on channels that matter in their local campaigns – websites, email, Facebook and supporter mobilisation.
PRMB: Do you see so-called “right wing” bloggers such as Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes as the Tories’ natural allies online in the run up to the election?
JH: The dominance of the centre-right in British political blogging is a testament to their quality and independence, and though we have a relationship with almost all of the big beasts in this world, it is up to them to decide on their editorial line.
The top centre-right bloggers are, however, part of a broader Conservative movement that is looking to challenge the wastefulness, incompetence and lack of vision in this current Labour Government.
PRMB: Does having a social media presence conflict with the Conservatives’ need to control the message very tightly in the coming months?
It’s important for any political party to have a clear, distinctive message so the voters know exactly what we stand for. However, it’s equally important to be reaching out to voters so they can ask us questions and figure out if they want us to be the next government. Social media offers us an excellent opportunity to have that conversation and open ourselves up to public scrutiny, but so do other channels.
Email is still the most accessible engagement tool out there and public meetings provide a great way to engage directly. David Cameron has also held almost fifty ‘Cameron Direct’ events over the past year, engaging with over 10,000 people face-to-face and answering their questions on a range of subjects.
PRMB: Is the party afraid that social media will become the source of damaging stories or allegations that will turn the polls against it? How well prepared is the party to deal with a scandal erupting online?
JH: We saw from the Draper-McBride scandal what happens when a central Party tries to take control of independent, online media – it ended in the kind of fiasco and disgrace that will come to define Labour’s approach to the internet in the minds of most people for many years to come.
The Conservative Party inherently understands that online communications comes with risks, but that the opportunities are too great to ignore.
PRMB: I’ve read that the party is going to advertise on Spotify. In what way is this the right medium for a political party to engage with the electorate? Is this just trying to piggy-back on the latest “hot thing”?
JH: Your advertising strategy has to be about reaching out to people who would never ordinarily engage with your content – or even be that interested in politics and platforms like Spotify (or Google AdWords, which we’ve also used with significant results) are a great way of reaching new audiences.
We’re absolutely not about going for the latest “hot thing” – if a platform wasn’t going to be effective for us or offer value for money then we wouldn’t use it.
PRMB: Does the party think it will harness online communities in the way Barack Obama did ahead of his presidential win?
JH: Can we emulate Obama? US elections are very different in tone, size and scale to ours in the UK but we are the Party that has best understood and adopted the lessons they learnt last year. Obama’s achievements in terms of organising activists and raising money have certainly raised the bar in terms of what a political party can achieve online and we’re obviously looking to do something similar in Britain.
To that end, we’re launching something very exciting at Party Conference – the most advanced political campaigning tool outside the USA, and the endpoint of our content and supporter recruitment strategies.
Jon Clements is a Chartered PR consultant specialising in B2B PR, corporate and marketing communications and is the founder of Metamorphic PR.