The new mass media

The history-making 2008 presidential election continues to show how quickly political messaging is changing. In the digital media age, the users rule. They make editorial decisions and determine what is really important in a news cycle. Two stories that broke in recent weeks illustrate my point.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy exploded in the mainstream media amid projections that it would cause huge problems for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Well, it didn’t. Analyzing an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by his firm and Public Opinion Strategies’ Bill McInturff, longtime Democratic pollster Peter Hart called their survey a “myth-buster.” Obama took a small hit. The controversy was “less defining than the media has portrayed,” according to Hart. Half the electorate paid little attention to the tempest.

Barack Obama was criticized by the MSM for his slow response to the Rev. Wright story. Popular wisdom was that he should have struck back hard, disavowing and disowning the pastor immediately. Some wondered why Obama hadn’t “thrown him under the bus” well before the story broke. As it turns out, Obama’s speech elevating the discussion to one of racial relations in America was well-received. It not only got generally favorable reviews in the MSM but also was a big hit online.

The second story was Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) Bosnia adventure. Now, it is hardly unusual for a politician to exaggerate past exploits in the heat of a campaign. But the fact that Clinton and her advisers continued to use the story as part of her stump speech even after it was debunked by reporters who actually covered the trip, and that it was included as an expected applause line in a major address on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, shows a real misunderstanding of how much media has changed.

Through much of the 20th century and even the first two presidential elections of the 21st, toughing it out may have worked. But not when bloggers can assemble clips online.

In both of these instances the real action was on the Internet. More people watched the YouTube video of Hillary’s misstatements and the footage of her arrival in Bosnia than bothered to tune into Rev. Wright postings. Barack Obama’s 40-minute speech was also viewed more times than the inflammatory Wright clips.

Why? I would argue there are several reasons. All the clips made viewers eyewitnesses to events. They saw Obama leading, Clinton lying and an old man ranting. They dismissed the Rev. Wright and spent little time on him. They focused, instead, on the candidates. They made an editorial judgment that one of those two was likely to be the next president and they chose to get the facts for themselves. And, most importantly, they shared what they found with others. Both the Obama and Clinton clips were widely circulated via e-mail.

We have long known that the most believed source of information is word of mouth. In the digital age, e-mail becomes a huge barbershop or beauty parlor. It is where we share information with each other.

My friend and colleague Mark Mellman spoke recently at a conference of political professionals in Santa Monica, Calif. He noted that 90 percent of Americans trust word of mouth over news, advertising or any other form of communication. He identified some common characteristics that drive word-of-mouth communication. An event must be “remarkable,” as in worthy of repeating. People pass things on that are worth talking about. Authenticity is important. So is emotional content. And, possibly most importantly, if you want to generate word of mouth, people need tools they can use to pass on the information. The Obama speech and the Clinton Bosnia story certainly provided all those elements.

Obama’s recent surge in the Pennsylvania polls shows his campaign may understand those rules better than his opponents. His recent bus tour showed a distinct change in his campaign style. He hung out in sports bars, flirted with female factory workers and even dared show his incompetence as a bowler. All those events put him in direct touch with people who decided they could like this guy. News reports from the scene describe voters calling friends and taking cell phone photos, which were then e-mailed to others. Everyone he came in contact with became a reporter, and his or her medium was word of mouth. They won’t replace the MSM, but it is becoming clear that viral communication is making WOM a powerful messaging tool in this election.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com