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Obama's campaign manager: Today’s strategies target local, social media

David Plouffe speaks at the Vocus Users Conference

David Plouffe speaks at the Vocus Users Conference

David Plouffe (pictured) speaks as clearly and measured as the current president whose campaign he helped to run. At a keynote speech to Vocus Inc. subscribers at the 2009 Vocus Users Conference on Thursday, June 4, Obama’s chief campaign manager offered some choice words regarding the technology that was so influential in the presidential campaign. As he went into detail about how his team implemented their campaign strategy, one theme he dropped on the crowd was picked up by other speakers throughout the day: national media should not be your main focus in a grassroots campaign. The statistics he brought up, also echoed by others, showed that national media is not always the best way to reach a nation. He pointed out that the number of CNN viewers at any given time pales in comparison to the number of subscribers on then-presidential candidate Obama’s e-mail list (13 million). They started with fewer than 5,000. And that, folks, is the future.

“The undecided voters were not [necessarily] watching cable news,” said Plouffe. “The insiders in Washington were.” While noting that “a human being talking to a human being is the most effective communication there is,” Plouffe credited a great deal of success to the mostly under-30 crowd who technologically drove their strategy. Platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are not going away, he says. So “corporate folks and lawyers are just going to have to get over it.” Some rogue posts will appear that companies do not want posted. However, he noted, “that’s the price you pay to be interactive.”

Brian Solis, principal of FutureWorks PR and also a speaker, stated that “we go after the A-listers,” referring to PR professionals targeting media contacts at national outlets. Like Plouffe, he is critical of this strategy’s effectiveness at keeping your message visible. Solis said, “that’s going to mean less to you in the long run.” Even Web traffic from a national pick-up should not be the goal, he says, as “most of those [Web site] visitors will go away.” Solis says it’s the peer-to-peer influencers and “magic middle” media contacts where the dollar signs can be found.

In his speech to Vocus users, Jay Hansen, vice president of government affairs for the National Asphalt Pavement Association, focused not around how to contact columnists at the New York Times, but how not to underestimate new technology. “We just need to learn to apply it to our mission and our message,” said Hansen, whose main audience is typically those in the U.S. Senate.

Having watched more than 2,000 magazine and newspapers close over the last 18 months, the question of media influence continues to take center stage. Will the national media hold less and less influence in a more social media friendly nation? Or will local media be the ones to pick up the slack? “Questions from local media were substantive,” said Plouffe, reflecting on the campaign. “From the national media, we got processed questions with no depth, although there were some exceptions.”

Not so long along, the media was easily separated: local, national and international. Today, the direction of news is changing. Local news is becoming influential and the media is decentralizing from a national approach. News no longer comes from a national media center, distributed to distant cities. Instead, local chatter is rising to the point where national outlets are compelled to cover it.

Media focus is changing not only geographically, but sociologically. Top publications, which only recently began complementing their print coverage with online videos, podcasts and blogs, are rapidly making a presence on Twitter and Facebook. Now the New York Times has a social media editor. But the accessibility of these new platforms makes it just as easy for PR to reach a massive audience. It’s up to leading PR strategists to determine where they want to focus their influence. One thing is clear: the mainstream is evolving, not disappearing. Those ready to face the future are the ones adapting.

–Rebecca Bredholt

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