As British politics steps up a gear ahead of the general election, can Westminster parties emulate the masterful command of content seen in Barack Obama’s recent BuzzFeed film, which received over 50m views in just one week? Gillian West explores whether UK politicians have what it takes to embrace digital like the president.
Barack Obama’s digital operations have been integral to his political career and presidency over the last six years. And with a social footprint spanning more than 100 million internet users on Facebook and Twitter alone, politicians both sides of the pond are desperate to find out the recipe behind Obama’s digital ‘secret sauce’.
Following his appearance last year on Zach Galifianakis’ internet comedy series ‘Between Two Ferns’ Obama has since turned to another popular forum, BuzzFeed, to reach out and encourage young Americans to sign up to his Affordable Healthcare Act with the video ‘Things Everybody Does But Doesn’t Talk About’.
“When I saw it I tweeted the ‘BuzzFeedification’ of government communications was finally complete,” says Nick Jones, former head of digital for the prime minister and cabinet office, now head of digital communications and corporate responsibility at Visa Europe.
“But at the end of the day it’s just content, albeit a fantastic example of beautifully created and well executed content. It’s much the same in aim as an HMRC ‘fill out your tax return’ message, yet it looked and sounded completely different from government communications, and that’s what got the attention.”
Whether or not the clip managed to make young Americans sign up remains to be seen, but for a political message to accrue in excess of 50m views in little over a week is without doubt enviable. So what is it that makes Obama so appealing?
“The difference really comes from Obama’s experience as a community organiser in Chicago,” says Sam Jeffers, managing director of Blue State Digital London, the UK arm of Obama’s digital strategy agency and advisors to Labour’s 2015 general election campaign.
“He found the best way to reach people was through direct contact and he’s prepared to go where he knows he’ll find the audience he wants to communicate with. He’s completely unique as a modern communicator; there’s no one else like him who possesses that ability to switch tone.
“He is, of course, a very serious person – he’s the president of the most powerful country in the world – but when needed he has a light touch that’s very authentic and he’s able to modify his tone to suit any communications channel.”
The BuzzFeed video is just one cog in the social media and online machine Obama has been manning to promote his healthcare act to young Americans, including interviews with YouTube talent Hank Green, Bethany Mota and GloZell Green and a candid Reddit AMA.
As Britain’s political elite ramp up for the general election, could Obama’s “modern sense of how to communicate” translate to UK shores? The short answer is no, according to Jones, because of the differences in the political constitutions of the two countries.
“Running for prime minister isn’t in the same league as running for president. In the US it’s won by wooing a nation, whereas in the UK you become prime minister by working to win constituency by constituency.”
It’s also worth bearing in mind the differences in styles of political personality on the two sides of the Atlantic. Obama is fundamentally different from any of the UK’s political leaders, who are nervous about embracing new technology – and until that nervousness subsides, UK politicians’ use of digital channels will remain stifled, according to Simon Francis, director of social communications agency Claremont.
“The UK is a long way from seeing anyone successfully using platforms like BuzzFeed to the extent Obama has. Politicians are very nervous about doing anything that’s seen as too different and are hesitant because every single example of where people have tried to engage with content or create more interesting content has backfired.
“That’s not to say our politicians couldn’t be using BuzzFeed and other online content more effectively,” he adds. “There are some local candidates doing interesting stuff with video and infographics but it comes down to the candidate, the time, the budget and the skills available. There’s a real skills race between the parties to learn how to create content in-house, quickly and of a high enough quality to drive engagement and ultimately votes.”
Obama being halfway through his second term as president has also afforded him more freedom to experiment with his communications; as he’s not running for re-election he has less to lose. Francis draws comparisons with the last UK election when the polls showed Labour was heading for defeat.
“At that point Gordon Brown changed, started doing things more open forum events and off-the-cuff speeches. What we could see this time is more innovation towards the end of the campaign when the parties are throwing everything they have at it.”
Despite the different set of circumstances and breed of politicians in the UK, Jeffers believes there are “commonalities” in campaigning on both sides of the Atlantic that digital can help with.
“Ultimately it’s about getting your message out and improving understanding of your messaging. Digital is what allows people to get involved with politics in the way that they want.
“Be it spreading messages, raising money or sharing information, digital is the grease in the wheels that gets people talking and connecting with politics.”
This feature was first published in The Drum's 4 March issue.