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"Gotcha" Culture, Authenticity, and the Danger for Campaigns

BY Colin Delany | Thursday, June 14 2007

Cross-posted on e.politics

As Joe Trippi has been making the rounds lately, one thing he's been talking about is the rise of a culture of authenticity in politics as we move from a broadcast television era to an Internet-dominated era. I heard him make the point at last week's Connecting with Young Voters event (ably summarized by Kate Phillips in The Caucus), and he said something similar this week to The Guardian (thanks, Josh).

"Before TV, what mattered was how your voice sounded. Then with TV it matters what your candidate looks like ... Anybody can fake it on TV: all the Joe Trippis and Alastair Campbells get really good at making sure our guy looks great for the eight seconds that are actually going on the news.

"We are now moving to a medium where authenticity is king, from what things look like to what's real ... You have to be 'on' 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

He went into some detail about what a culture of authenticity means for campaigns — the proliferation of "behind-the-scenes" campaign videos is one example, as is the recent trend of having campaigns interact with supporters via video "conversation" (more like a conversation via radio with someone on Pluto, though, with question and answer separated by hours or days).

The part of his discussion that really jumped out at me was his mention of the danger for campaigns of the transition period from an era of "gotcha" culture to one of authenticity. He pointed to the video of Conrad Burns falling asleep in a Senate hearing as an example — let's face it, we've ALL started to fall asleep in a meeting before, and it's not really an indicator of how on-the-ball Burns was as a legislator. Eventually, Trippi believes that we'll laugh off minor gaffes like this, but at the moment, the Internet is encouraging a culture of authenticity at the same time that rival campaigns, the media, blogs, etc., will gang-tackle a candidate (or celebrity) for the slightest public or private mistake.

MoveOn's Eli Pariser made a related point at the Personal Democracy Forum conference last month when talking about social media: he argued that they won't reach their full potential until we can move past the "gotcha" mentality. He has reason to know, since MoveOn was burned in 2004 by the legendary "Hitler ad" — it'll be hard for campaigns to take risks with citizen-generated content if they're afraid of being held responsible for something created by a a supporter with bad taste. Another example: think of all the times that the most extreme position taken by a random commentor on a lefty blog is held out by some TV blathering head or talk radio host as somehow being representative of ALL liberal thought.

How can campaigns handle this problem? First of all, by having a sense of humor. Your candidate makes an honest mistake, or a supporter does something that looks bad? Act like it's no big deal and apologize if necessary. Then, move on. Take a lesson from the Bush campaign for Texas Governor in 1994 — he accidentally shot a protected bird, and I can remember how much the Ann Richards campaign tried to jump all over him about it. But, he paid his fine and laughed it off as a simple stupid mistake. Good damage control, and it worked.

The public will ultimately be able to tell the difference between something minor and a true Macaca moment — they'll be able to spot the unguarded moment that really DOES tell you something significant about a public figure. The worst thing a campaign can do is get defensive or evasive — nothing fires the press and the bloggers up like a candidate who seems to be hiding something.

cpd

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