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Putting the “Old” Back in New Media

Recently I have been troubled by something and I was having a hard time putting a finger on what it was. As I was scanning RSS feeds and Google Alerts this morning a number of articles with similar headlines jumped out at me. They all shared a common theme about the dangers of social media “experts” and “silos” within companies. Reading them helped crystallize some of my own shifting thoughts on the proper role of social media, and even the Internet more broadly, within an organization or campaign.

An AdAge article by Jonah Bloom titled Dedicated Social-Media Silos? That’s the Last Thing We Need caught my eye and I took a read. Bloom thesis is pretty sound – when a “new way” appears, people split into two camps. The adherents or adopters of the new way begin to see it as a critical component of future planning and separate from those who do not adapt.

Every time an apparently foreign object is identified… the inhabitants split, roughly speaking, into two parties — those who fear the foreign body and those who are excited by it. The excited annex the object and create their own nation around it. The fearful homelanders breathe a sigh of relief and go back to doing whatever it was they were doing — albeit with just a few nagging fears about the ambitions of the fledgling country being built next door.

I have, myself, led the march of adherents in several instances and find I am still doing so today. I have, for much of my career, seen the “nagging fears“. I sense the derision and skepticism every time my fellow blogger and I walk the halls at our office and hear the “there go the ‘bloggers’ with their ‘Twitters’ and their ‘FaceySpaces”‘.” He and I often wonder if the first media guy at the association heard, “there goes the ‘TV’ guy with his ‘saturation buy’ and his ‘gross rating points’.”

When people sense change, but fear or don’t understand it, they mock it. They make it different.

But the adherents to the new way are no different. Look at my old blog post that I linked above. I sound like a cokcy prick. Only my way can save us.

At the RNC I led the creation of a new Internet division charged with overseeing all things digital. It was, to say the least, a mistake in retrospect. The problem was not one of divisional boundaries. As Bloom argues:

By dedicating resources and attention to the new medium, discipline or, in social media’s case, idea, those who work in the field are able to quickly advance it and ensure that it prospers.

The problem, however, is that the new and old states cannot exist successfully without the other, a fact they realize after they have set up separate and often competitive fiefdoms that barely speak the same language.

Elevating the importance of the eCampaign division at the RNC was beneficial as it made people think differently about the role of the Internet. Over the long term, however, I believe it has ultimately proved harmful because it has created a new layer of bureaucracy. Further, the focus on how to be tech-savvy has, I believe, detracted from the larger mission of how to be savvy.

I am hereby reversing my earlier position that the Internet be given special prominence in your organization or campaign.

The RNC dodesn’t need a division for the Internet, they need people (not a person) in Communications that recognize the Internet’s role as a channel for multiple types of communications. That could be blog outreach, banner advertising, SEO, social media, or countless other ways to move a message or have a conversation.

The RNC needs people in political that understand how these tools can be used for organizing, and more importantly, how the people can be empowered via these tools to organize themselves.

The RNC needs people in finance that understand the difference between revised direct mail copy and good e-mail. They need people who understand SocNets and the way to leverage them to make small dollars add up to big bucks.

Your online media is no more, and no less important than anything else you do. The fact that you can use new media to more quickly attract and reach customers or voters has little relevance if you have no idea what to say to them and no idea what you want them to do.

Before I became “an Internet guru” (not my word choice, but one that I hear when I’m introduced), I was simply a political operative. I did statistical analysis to determine voting patterns and I focused on things like voter files, turnout models, and coalition building.

When I listen to twenty-something consultants taking about the Internet and what it will do, most of that is gone. There is much discussion of the long tail and the crowdsourcing, but little discussion of the offline mechanics of politics – as if every conversation in every diner in America has been supplanted with Twitter.

Now don’t get me wrong. I strongly believe that every conversation taking place at every diner in America is currently taking place online. But for most people, the real world is still their playground of choice. We cannot become so focused on our love of innovation that we lose sight of the core technology at the heart of politics – people.

Just as books changed the way we told stories, radio changed the number of people to whom we could tell them, and video changed the richness of our narrative, the Internet will empower us all to be both story teller and audience. The story, however, is still the same, and no media can claim supremacy. Before we act high and mighty, we must, as Bloom says, look at what we are leaving behind.

Written by Michael Turk