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Edward Staite: Harnessing the power of the Conservative crowd to secure a new politics

Picture 29 Edward Staite is a media adviser and international communications consultant for Fleishman-Hillard.

The White House communications team recently admitted that they have lost control of what they call the 'news cyclone'.

This from a team widely seen to have produced the most modern, internet savvy, new media focused and democratic campaign in the history of politics. Yet, by their own admission, they are not quick, or fleet of foot enough to ensure they are managing the news and are now re-writing the rules of Presidential PR. 

The reason for this is that we all consume our daily intake of news and comment in a way unimaginable even two elections ago. A recent survey said social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter are the primary source of news for over a quarter of people. The shattering of the media world into a million and more pieces has democratised news content and taken power away from the centrist, corporate approach of large news corporations from the past.

The ‘news cycle’ is dead. We now have a constant news stream that ebbs and flows with subjects growing in volume or decreasing in importance in a way that makes traditional news management as irrelevant as the Polish Cavalry in 1939. The cyclone, as the White House has discovered, will soon swamp you.

This cyclone has hit the shores of the UK as well and is gathering strength as we move closer to the election. ConservativeHome readers should welcome this as a precursor to a new way of doing, and communicating, politics. At the same time we should aim to be the catalyst to making this a reality.

A new style of politics communicated in a new and exciting way is achievable and could be with us soon, but an awful lot has to change to cut through the searing, destructive and rampant cynicism the public see when they look at politics in this country.

David Cameron has consistently talked of a 'new politics' but this is met with downright hostility or apathetic rigidity from an electorate that has given up on politics. A large reason for this, as pointed out by Daniel Finkelstein recently, is that the filter of any announcement, policy launch or keynote speech is the traditional news media; possibly the most cynical group of men and women in the world.

So, while the way we consume the news has changed immensely, the way news is created largely remains the same.

There is hope: we all play a part in the ongoing conversation which influences even the most grand of established opinion leaders. Monitoring of the ever changing social media conversation is a developing art but already startlingly advanced. It is possible to track which journalists are most read, or recommended through sharing of links to their articles (as I have done in this blog or via Twitter for example). This is pretty basic data capture to determine popularity.

Where things get interesting, and my belief in a new dawn for British politics is grounded, is more subtle. It is also now possible to analyse which blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook conversations individual journalists are reading. This can be done so precisely that we can identify, with a pretty high degree of certainty, which online conversations a Lobby journalist has dipped into before writing and posting an article.

In the old days it would have been equivalent to knowing Benedict Brogan had read comment pieces by Matthew Parris, Fraser Nelson and Philip Stephens before lunching with George Osborne and Ed Balls and then finally writing his own piece.

So why does this all matter to the loyal readers of ConHome? Many readers of this blog will be spending their spare time from now until polling day knocking on doors and speaking directly to voters. Sometimes that short interaction will be the only time voters see or hear from the Conservative Party as they have switched off from all other routes of communication.

Others, like you or I, live and breathe the political world from the Today programme to Newsnight via this blog and others, devouring the papers and debating issues with friends in the pub. Blogs such as this will be many Conservatives main source of news about the Party but also politics more generally. At the same time it will be a window into the Party for our opponents and also the mainstream media. Without being too grand about it, we are the conversation. 

The corporate world, increasingly, but not universally, has recognised this and is now investigating the social media phenomenon, investing in training, protocols and strategies to create company ambassadors for every conceivable conversation their company should be involved in. Conversations will be face-to-face with customers, but also online engagement with policy makers, influencers or NGOs. They are adapting in a way that accepts the wisdom of crowds but does not accept that the crowd cannot be influenced.

I spend a lot of my time with companies teaching them techniques needed to engage their target audiences with the right message in the correct tone at the perfect time to move a conversation in a favourable direction. Recognising the reality of a news stream but also identifying the best ways to jump into that stream and, perhaps most importantly, ensuring they stay afloat.

From a political perspective the conversation with the British electorate has already begun. The problem for the Conservative Party is that people don't appear to be listening. Too often lazy journalists, for whatever reason, talk about a lack of policies from the Conservatives. Not only is this disingenuous but also helps stoke the growing flames of apathy in voter’s hearts.

This is disappointing, not least because the stream of policies coming from CCHQ in recent weeks has, at times, felt like a tsunami. But ultimately, while not irrelevant, these policies need an awful lot of luck to grab the attention of an electorate who are dipping in and out of the news stream and not actively searching for Conservative policies.

This is where the loyal readers of blogs like ConservativeHome come in. While the cynicism of the mainstream media can and will be countered by the CCHQ press office they will need the support of Conservative crowds.

The majority of you are the Conservative Party. You are the Conservative brand ambassadors. In everything you do whether it is hitting the streets with your leaflets, knocking on doors canvassing or simply having a drink with friends; all this will help to shape the perception of the party to the electorate.

Where there is a great opportunity for us all now is that we can work to shape the conversation about the future of this country in a way that Gordon Brown’s stage-managed ‘Big Conversation’ road show never could.

Multi-national companies need to train their ambassadors before letting them dip their toes into the news and information stream made up of blogs, traditional news and social networking sites. The Conservative Party has a ready-made network of ambassadors. The Conservative membership, in a way never seen before, can have a massive impact on the forthcoming election. If the Conservative crowd shapes the ongoing conversation in an effective and positive way then a new politics of the kind David Cameron believes in may already have begun.


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