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On Monday afternoon, The Obama 2012 campaign announced it was open for business and sent out text messages, e-mails, Facebook messages and Tweets asking supporters to answer the question, “Are you with us?” and then to sign up to volunteer, donate, etc. This seemed apropos of how we in PR communicate our messaging these days. Nothing too remarkable. But it got me thinking that not too long ago, the world was stunned by the Obama 2008 campaign’s use of social media to engage with voters and supporters, especially those in the 18-49 age bracket. Is social media going to replace traditional campaign methods, or is it just a relatively free and fast means of enhancing the bond between the brand, aka the candidate and the client, aka the 2012 voters?

On the Republican side, only Tim Pawlenty has officially declared his intention to run as a presidential candidate in 2012 and he has an active online presence. It is no surprise that Pawlenty’s site closely mirrors that of David Plouffe’s design for the Obama campaign of 2008, right down to the choice of Helvetica font.

I expect that all candidates, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, will aim to mimic the Obama 2008 website. After all, David Plouffe, the architect of Obama’s 2008 online presence, is the Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/Thomas Edison social media strategy for political campaigns.

Potential candidate Sarah Palin has used social media to connect with her fans and has been savvy in expressing sometimes controversial views via Twitter and Facebook. These communiques have been picked up by traditional media and as a result, she has received a lot of free press. But thus far, she has not used social media as an official campaign tool for whatever she may be doing in 2012!

Around the same time I received the missives from the Obama folks, I also received my Ragan’s Daily Report, which included a great conversation between Diane Schwartz, SR VP and Group Publisher of Media/PR Group at Access Intelligence, and Mark Ragan of Ragan Communications. Ragan asked Schwartz if social media was just a part of the toolkit or was it becoming the entire toolkit for PR professionals. Schwartz made a great point: if a client and the client’s audience are not at all involved with social media, then setting up a Twitter feed for them is fruitless. She noted that although PR professionals these days are having fun with social media and using it effectively and cheaply, listening to where the client is and what is relevant to their milieu is very important.

Although the Obama campaign revolutionized the way politicians running for office reach out, they will not be abandoning the tried and true methods of direct mail, phone banking and door-to-door solicitations. Just as Diane Schwartz indicated, the campaign is taking into account that some of their most valuable constituents, people 65 and over, are not regular Tweeters and incessant updaters of Facebook their status. This is a lesson from which all of us can learn. Listening to the client and learning about how that client relates to its customers and audience is key. It is wonderful to be adept in the newest, latest social media trends. And when representing a client whose market consists of consistent social media users, those social media skills are relevant and will work to get you the attention you seek for your client. But if your client has a market that is made up of those same social media users, and people who are intimidated by e-mail, then you’d better be able to hear that and craft your PR strategy accordingly.

In fact, when I opened the link I received from the Obama folks yesterday, I had the option to sign up (via e-mail. of course) and let the campaign know if I was interested in being a real flesh and blood volunteer. I could indicate if I was interested in attending an actual event, or volunteering in myriad ways. Today the site is dominated by tweets from supporters. It is serving to gin up the excitement and get the online base ready for action. Veteran campaigners on both sides of the political aisle know that by the time the summer of 2012 rolls around, they will have to harness and mobilize all of the spirit they’ve built up “in the cloud” and transform it into an army of envelope sealers, door knockers, and phone bankers, not to mention donors. I don’t see that changing any time soon, but it will be fascinating to see what effect this revolution in social media has on how politicians campaign, and what lessons this union of the old and the new has for us in the PR profession.

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