Lessons in digital outreach from Obama campaign’s blogger liaison
By Jo Piazza / current.com / @jopiazza
If you worked in digital media during this past campaign season, chances are your inbox was graced with a daily email from Erica Sackin, a veteran of Planned Parenthood and the digital outreach lead for Obama for America. These blogger tip sheets came with short links to other blogs, supplemental videos supporting the Obama campaign’s positions on the news of the day, Twitter trending topics you may have missed and sound bites from key campaign surrogates.
Sackin managed to strike the right tone — between news release and blog-speak, which was really no accident, since she found herself living in the intersection of traditional news and the blogosphere. The tidbits she shared in her emails varied from Romney’s extreme record on women’s health and women’s rights to why Bruce Springsteen was voting for Obama.
When it came to digital outreach, the Obama campaign got it right — for obvious reasons, but also for not-so-obvious reasons.
For the first time in election history, micronews outlets (from blogs to Twitter feeds) around the country had a dedicated part of a campaign speaking directly to them.
Now that the campaign is over and at least part of the veil of secrecy about her work has been lifted, we took some time out to chat with Sackin about how the president’s campaign was able to maximize the value of blogs and social media for the win.
Jo Piazza: How exactly did your position evolve?
Erica Sackin: The campaign was smart about not treating media outreach and digital outreach as separate delineations. There’s a lot of overlap — traditional media isn’t separate from the Internet. Twitter and blogs influence news stories, news stories influence online mediums and they all help create a megaphone that elevates certain stories more than others. So my title was digital outreach lead, but I, along with Greg Greene at the DNC [Democratic National Committee] and for the last few months of the campaign Melissa Ryan from the New Organizing Institute, were talking with progressive bloggers and nontraditional online outlets: political bloggers, people on Twitter, popular Tumblrs, Reddit, really anyone influential online.
The idea behind this was that there’s no longer a single place people get their news or follow a news story. They watch TV and read the paper, but they also share a funny website their friend sent them, retweet a joke they see on Twitter, email a video clip, post a picture with text on Facebook. We hear about stories and politics from eight directions at once now. Our job was to have those other conversations — the ones happening outside of traditional media but that were still just as influential.
JP: How was what you were doing unique?
ES: You have traditional journalists, who you talk to via press releases and quotes, and you have online constituents, who you talk to via emails and Twitter. But in between that you have a whole world of people who are influential to both news stories and what people are say sharing on Facebook or tweeting about or forwarding emails on. They don’t fit inside a clear-cut media category, but are still incredibly important. What the campaign was looking to do was build relationships with those people.
JP: What is the difference, then, from traditional media outreach?
ES: It’s not a one-way conversation. You’re not talking with a reporter from The New York Times, where you’re giving them information and they report it. It’s a dialogue. We were talking to and hearing from progressives from all over the country, finding out what people were talking about in Ohio, or Virginia, connecting that to what was going on in the larger campaign and sharing that with other bloggers or progressives across the country.
JP: How does that feedback loop work?
ES: We were constantly having conversations. There were so many blogs across the country doing amazing work and so many people who already wanted to re-elect the president. What we did was connect them, talk with them and help build a broader community.
JP: What would you count among your big successes? Big Bird obviously got a lot of traction.
ES: The Big Bird stuff almost had a life of its own, which should be a lesson to politicians — don’t mess with “Sesame Street”! But I think one of our most successful pushes was when we talked about Romney’s economic philosophy. When we started the RomneyEconomics site, talking about what he had done at Bain and what he was proposing in his budget, that really resonated with people. There was already a conversation going on about economic inequality and how we build a fair economy in this country. When we told the stories of what Bain had done to certain businesses, it hit home for a lot of the bloggers coming out of communities in states like Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, where they had seen this happen firsthand. Then it wasn’t just bloggers sharing the campaign’s material, but also sharing their own stories and the stories that had happened in their communities. Together, the conversation got louder and louder until it was too big to ignore.
The conversation around health care was also incredibly important. That law has changed so many people’s lives. I can’t tell you how many times people would tell us that because of Obamacare, they now could get treatment for cancer, or Lupus, or another condition that would have otherwise been treated as a pre-existing condition. Romney kept repeating that he wanted to repeal Obamacare, but he forgot that people’s lives were at stake.
JP: Did local blogs start to become more important than traditional news outlets?
ES: No, but there’s also no way to disconnect them. More and more people are getting their news online, from news organizations, blogs or Twitter feeds that they trust. It’s a cycle — one influences the other and both help amplify each other. Journalists may get a story idea from a blog, or a blog may help amplify a news story to give it more legs, traction and a longer lifespan. Or someone will follow a news story, create a funny website or photo about it, share that with their friends, who then create a fake twitter account. And before you know it, that story has become a meme and your dad is sending you a joke photo about it. There is no black and white delineation any more. It’s become an organic thing. Media work and the online work have to be treated as fluid.
JP: How many news outlets did you read a day during the campaign?
ES: I don’t even know how to answer that question. A lot? I have a core list of about 300 blogs I’d read on a daily basis, not to mention my Twitter feed, Reddit and clips from about 50 different political news sources.
JP: When did your day start?
ES: My day started around 6, but I was by no means the first person awake and doing work.
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