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Column: Irish politicians are campaigning in the Dark Ages

While politics in Ireland are still centred around the parish pump, in the US and UK social media has transformed how politicos engage with the public, writes Paul Allen.

Handshakes and babies: Bertie Ahern out on a traditional street canvass in Virginia, Cavan ahead of the 2002 election.
Handshakes and babies: Bertie Ahern out on a traditional street canvass in Virginia, Cavan ahead of the 2002 election.
Image: PA Archive/Press Association Images

WHEN HILARY CLINTON’S campaign kicked off earlier this week there were no fireworks, press conference or gathering of the media’s elite. It was a low-key affair announced through a simple tweet and YouTube video.

But while the campaign launch was devoid of the usual pomp and ceremony, behind it a massive social media blitz clicked into gear.

The use of social media has quickly become one of the most prominent ways for politicians to connect and engage with the American public. Clinton and other candidates are now going beyond the ‘traditional’ channels of Facebook and Twitter, to others, such as Snapchat and Periscope, as they seek for broader ways to engage with voters.

Social is a key tool

The run-up to the general election in the UK has also seen social media become a key strategic communications tool.

Labour, for example, is using Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and AudioBoom. So it can share campaign photos, react instantly to the policies or criticisms of the opposition and share video and audio files of speeches, interviews and soundbites.

Such digital campaigns rely on making an impact in the real world, through the raising of campaign funds, the mobilisation of grass roots activists and clearly communicating policies to the public.

After witnessing the power and reach of Labour’s digital campaign team when I visited the party’s election centre in London last week, I firmly believe Irish politicians are operating in the dark ages. And the sad fact is it looks likely they are in no position to catch up with their American and British counterparts anytime soon.

Perception is everything in politics

Irish politicians have been left battered and bruised, and are now befuddled. They have stumbled from one crisis to another, losing credibility as the public pummels them, blaming them for broken promises, inaction and ineptitude.

Perception is everything in politics, and the public’s perception of politicians in Ireland at present is at rock bottom. To change this politicians have to take control of the message and their relationship with the public. However, instead they have simply huddled around parish-pump politics and clung on to what they know.

Politicians have to realise digital media is now the message. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the likes provide a direct channel to the public, and politicians have to take more advantage of this than they currently do.

The old formula was about press conferences and interviews. The new formula relies on social media and carefully-managed public appearances. The key difference between both is that the media middlemen are bypassed and the message is crafted, controlled and communicated directly to the public. They will then accept it, disagree with it or ignore it — but the message will not get lost in translation.

The best spin doctors in town have always been the media. And nowadays politicians have become playthings to harass and harangue. Media interviews have become a blood sport; a sport that has anointed Vincent Browne as its champion.

Renua’s mistake

The latest victim to be chewed up and spat out was Renua. But Ireland’s newest political party would have been far better off engaging directly with the Irish public through social media and building a base of support, before going the old school route of press conferences and media interviews. Embracing such a strategy would have allowed it to hone its messages and focused its key campaign statements into snappy, straightforward soundbites.

A digital general election

And with the general election in Ireland in 2016 drawing closer, such a coordinated digital strategy provides a golden opportunity for Irish politics.

With Ireland’s demographics a digital strategy for political parties makes perfect sense. Ireland’s population is young and tech savvy. Indeed, Ireland has one of the youngest populations in the West, with the average Irish person aged 35, compared to 40 in the UK and 37 in the US. They are therefore more likely to use and engage in digital media.

However, politicians here have been slow to change. So, while Hilary’s and Labour’s most powerful weapon is their digital campaign team, expect more of the tired old campaign tactics next year when it is time for Ireland’s political elite to slog it out in the general election.

Paul Allen is managing director of Paul Allen and Associates PR. Follow his blog here.

Will Hillary Clinton’s campaign offer anything different to the usual guff?>

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