Categories: Political spin

26 November 2009


Obama doesn’t Tweet. Does it matter?

Barack Obama has 2.6 million followers on Twitter and follows around 750, 000, but he recently admitted that he’s never Tweeted in his life. Are you surprised? I’m not. But some people might need to reconsider their hype.

Let me remind readers how some PRs responded to Obama-online-mania and the idea that he listened as much as talked with social media:

As we all know, there is a tendency for politicians to prefer the sound of their own voices more than those of their constituents and supporters, but the key to Obama’s success was that he used social media not just to talk to supporters, but to talk with them.

Frankly, I am unimpressed by the idea that Obama got into social media in order to listen. I imagine he and his team had their ears to the ground in all sorts of ways and that they could as it were have over-heard most of the chatter they needed rather than join up in order to listen.

Arguably, there was something fraudulent about the personal connection that social media conveyed Obama as having with his audiences. The truth was he was as remote and mediated on social media as he was in mainstream media. But here’s Edelman’s take on the first step potential voters took to engage with Obama’s campaign:

The Obama campaign gave prospective supporters a menu of options:
•     Personal – You could start by friending Obama on a social network. Then, you might sign up for text messages and e-mails to stay informed about the campaign. As a supporter, you may make your first donation or register to vote.

But now we know that Barack Obama personally did not talk or engage with anybody via social media. Nevertheless, he was supposed to embody a new style of communication some call the public engagement model, which now appears to be as transparently one-way and as contrived as anything the traditional world of media could devise.

My point here is not to knock social media or to advocate a boycott for PR purposes or anything of the sort. My point is that those who advocate that social media forces on corporates a new form of touchy-feely engaged PR, are not inline with reality. Their major case-study has always been Barack Obama, but their evidence does not stack up.

Social media is supposed to be about the personal, not about PAs and PRs doing it (corporates don’t do personal very well; for good reason, as I argued here)

My message is that the old rules apply on social media as much as they still do on old media. There is no new age of communication so much as new technology and channels and new opportunities and threats that comes from everybody having access to the digitally-connected world.

I do not deny that social media played a valuable role in Barack Obama’s victory, particularly when it came to surfing youth enthusiasm and raising funds to pay for his TV ads. But it was social media that was in quite important ways hijacked and even corrupted from its most obvious value to most of its users.

I think the Obama campaign duped the social media and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the blogosphere will be more cross than most when they do fall out of love with their erstwhile hero. Think Labour and their luvvies in 1964 and 1997.

4 responses to “Obama doesn’t Tweet. Does it matter?”

  1. Ruth Seeley says:

    Here’s the silver lining in that cloud: the news that Obama wasn’t really tweeting didn’t emerge till almost a year after he was elected. But the perception that he was really engaging in social media in general and was on Twitter in particular seems to have inspired other politicians, including Toronto, ON (Canada) Mayor David Miller and Britain’s Lord Drayson, Minister for Science and Innovation. In fact, Ben Goldacre challenged Lord Drayson to a debate on the quality of science reporting and the debate actually happened. On television (gasp).

    I agree there will be fallout on the Obama front though. But we’ve been seeing that fallout from about a week after his inauguration as the initial euphoria surrounding the election of a Democrat faded and the harsh realities of trying to govern during the worst economic downturn in living memory set in. Further evidence of the onset of disillusionment is the rather – shall we say – muted response to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

  2. Tim Beighton says:

    Lets be honest Paul; that Obama did his own Tweets was as unbelievable as the clear and present danger of Iraq and Saddam Hussein was to the rest of the world. Simple barefaced hype.
    Agree with Ruth that maybe Obama tweets have encouraged other politicians to take up Twitter, but how they use and who writes it, is another matter.
    As is now well understood by many; Social Media is a hyped concept of interaction, yes its a conversation but unfortunately unlike a face to face one where you can read the person using methods other than than voice, with Twitter et al you don’t really know who is on the other side. The analogy of a lonely man chatting online with what he imagines to be his ideal future spouse, who in reality is another lonely man springs to mind.
    As for Obama his rhetoric is slowly coming to be obvious, whether it is the man or the system that makes it rhetoric is perhaps for another debate.

  3. Suzie says:

    While I agree that some people may have believed Obama was a tweeter, all throughout his campaign it was made clear to those following him that he was not the person responding. Whoever responded was entirely transparent, stating they were from someone in his HQ and not the man himself. So no, I don’t believe there will be any major fallout. People were engaged by him because of his brand and what he stands for. He sold this brand through a variety of media, not just social media, although social media was what he was most known for. His ability to summon the masses to act for him was because he came across as a strong, charismatic, measured man – the antithesis of Bush. Those people who saw hope in him should still see hope in him. If they don’t, then I feel sorry for them for their cynicsm.

  4. Paul Seaman says:

    Suzie, it was Obama’s admission that he’d never Twittered – not once in his life – that made this news. Your description of how the social media interaction worked makes my case that new media works just like old media in such circumstances. That does come as a real shock to many (and does challenge the personal nature of social media). Of course, you are correct to say that it was the message and the perceived brand/political values of Obama that people related to (or to the simple fact that he was not George W Bush). In other words, there was not a new type of relationship and bond or level of engagement forged by his use of social media, just a new channel for getting the message across, raising funds and surfing his supporters’ hopes and dreams. Getting clarity on that insight should help PRs help their clients make the best use of social media and help cut the hype, of which there’s been much too much.