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PdF Chat Time with Tracy Russo

BY Anna Curran | Tuesday, June 23 2009

Tracy Russo currently directs the new media strategy at the United States Department of Justice. Prior to joining the Justice Department she formed Russo Strategies, LLC, a progressive political consulting firm that specialized in new media strategies.

During the 2008 presidential primary, as the chief blogger and deputy director of online communications for the John Edwards campaign, she directed and executed an online communications and outreach strategy. She also helped to develop and execute an aggressive online fundraising strategy and mobile media plan.

Prior to joining the Edwards campaign, Russo worked at the DNC. She has been a featured speaker at the YearlyKos Convention, the Take Back America Conference and the Center for American Progress' Internet Advocacy Roundtable and Personal Democracy Forum. In addition, she has worked partnership with a variety of organizations, including the DNC, DLCC, EMILY's List, Campaigns and Elections Magazine, and the New Organizing Institute and George Washington University training individuals at home and abroad in the best practices of online engagement .

This interview was conducted on June 18th via email and has been edited for clarity.

Anna Curran: Tracy, your professional background includes experience working for the DNC as Online Communications Director, as well as Chief Blogger for the John Edwards campaign. Can you tell us about the progression of your career and how you got to where you are today?

Tracy Russo: I started working on campaigns as a field organizer. I also worked as a press assistant and as a junior fundraiser. I did a short volunteer stint on the Paul Hackett for Congress campaign in 2005. It was a special election that the blogosphere was heavily involved in, and I got my first glimpse of how online organizing could make a difference.

Then, while I was tasked as a fundraiser for Ciro Rodriguez’ ’06 Primary campaign a few months later, I realized I should try and put into practice what I’d witnessed during Hackett’s race for my current candidate. I did, and it worked. We raised half a million dollars online in 6 weeks and I never looked back. That race solidified in my mind that new media was where I wanted to be – it encompassed the best of all the facets of a campaign.

After that, Joe Rospars, (best known now as the Obama Campaign’s New Media Director) brought me into the DNC family to focus on Online Outreach. I was there until the Presidential Primary rolled around. I was eager to be involved in a primary campaign – it wasn’t something I’d done before – and the Edwards camp felt like the right fit for me.

I stayed there until Senator Edwards withdrew from the race, and then finished out the cycle as an independent consultant. Earlier this year, I got a call from the Justice Department asking me to chat with them. I did, and I ended up accepting the New Media gig with them soon after. An Administration job wasn’t something I was actively seeking, but this offer seemed like something I couldn’t pass up. The Justice Department hasn’t ever had a new media strategy. Figuring it out, putting it into practice, and making it work is a huge challenge that has me excited and terrified at the same time.

Anna Curran: In your opinion, have blogs changed presidential politics? What forces and trends do you see?

Tracy Russo: I’m not sure blogs have changed presidential politics as much as they’ve changed political reporting. There is definitely an activist component to the blogosphere which allows for fundraising and calls to action – but more than that – there is now another mechanism for news to be reported and consumed. Blogs have changed the way traditional outlets report the news. Bloggers have built in a new kind of accountability into the system. Bloggers can tell a story the traditional media won’t tell, and make it a story traditional outlets have to tell. Bloggers can be partners, champions and watch dogs all at the same time.

But we’ve still got a ways to go – a lot of traditional communications operatives still don’t understand how to effectively incorporate bloggers into their daily routines. In some cases they are terrified of the “wild” world of the internet and stay away completely. In the worst cases, they bungle the outreach and earn scorn and ridicule. All of that is changing, but it has been a slow process.

On the other side, the political blogosphere is still grappling with a way to support a wide number of bloggers and blogs. The top tier may do well, but there are many bloggers who are doing great work and struggling to stay afloat. Most folks don’t realize a large number of bloggers balance their blogging with another, completely unrelated, full-time job, and it’s not easy or sustainable.

From inside the campaign, the campaign blog, as a tool, has changed campaigning. The doors to the campaign can be opened wide. You can hear directly from the candidate, (and during the Edwards campaign, often the candidate’s fantastic spouse) and from chief decision makers. Supporters can connect directly to the campaign, and more importantly, to each other.

What Sam Graham-Felsen did with the Obama blog was truly amazing. He told the story of that campaign more thoroughly than any other person in that organization. And it was more than just the story of a junior Senator named Barack Obama, it was the story of a movement, of the people in it, and of the change that took place over many months all across America.

Sam’s talent in making that campaign come to life is really unmatched thus far. I don’t think any other campaign has come close to being able to use a blog that effectively. He has set a high bar, and I have no doubt it will be imitated extensively going forward.

Anna Curran: Who do you look to for innovative ideas?

Tracy Russo: I look to my peers in the online political space. We’re definitely a small, colorful family. Ideas are always bouncing around, and good ideas are quickly copied or tweaked and deployed again.

I also draw a lot of inspiration from the non-political parts of the internet – I started blogging personally in 1999 because I was inspired by other online personalities and a bunch of TV related fan sites (The Buffy the Vampire Slayer sites, in particular!). There you saw really active, vibrant communities coming together over shared interests, much like we see within the political online space today.

Finally, I usually troll the corporate/PR/Marketing blogosphere – it’s always a great place to hone communications skills and pick up marketing-inspired ideas.

Anna Curran: Lastly, you just broke 1000 updates on Twitter. Do you have any Twitter tales to share with our audience?

Tracy Russo: I’m sure, if you went back the three years it took me to get to 1000 updates, something would stand out. I’m not the most prolific Twitter updater. I tend to get really active at events, but on a day-to-day basis, I don’t update that often.

For me, Twitter is mainly a place to check in with my network to see what’s happening – whether its what might be trending during the work day, or what’s happening on a Friday night.

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