Social Media in Political Campaigning

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Hear from the Director of GW’s Strategic Public Relations Program, Larry Parnell, as he discusses the impact social media had during the 2012 presidential election. This webinar also examines the best practices and lessons PR professionals can apply outside of the political realm, including how these practices are incorporated into GW’s Strategic Public Relations online program.


Bobby: On behalf of the George Washington University thank you very much for joining us today. You have dialed into the 2012 Social Media Election Survey, the best practices for PR Practitioners. My name is Bobby I will be your moderator for today. This presentation will be held by the Program Director of the Strategic Public Relations Program, Mr. Larry Parnell.

Now, I’m just going to go over to the next slide, slide number two which discusses the logistics of the presentation. Just letting everybody know that you are in listen only mode. We do encourage you to ask questions throughout the presentation. However, questions will be addressed on a first come first served basis and we will address them at the end of the presentation.

If you have questions to ask please enter them in on the right hand side of your screen on the chat box and hit enter. At the end of the presentation you will receive a copy of these slides and a recording of the presentation as well.

So moving onto the next slide, slide number three. Well let’s introduce our panelist. Our panelist today we have Larry Parnell. Larry Parnell is Associate Professor and Program Director of the George Washington University’s Master of Professional Studies in Strategic Public Relations Program. Larry has held senior communications positions in consulting on the client side and in politics. He was most recently VP and Group Leader of the Corporate Communication Practice at Hill & Knowlton, Canada. In 2009 he was one of the six recipients inducted into the Hall of Fame by PR News.

Now, going into the next slide we’re going to be going over to our Agenda. So when speaking about our Agenda first we’re going to be talking about the Program Overview then the Curriculum. Then after that Mr. Parnell is going to go over the 2012 Social Media Election when he actually discusses Comparing Quality and Credibility using Social Media to Follow Election, and then the Conclusion Implications. After that we’re going to be going into Program Start Dates. And then we’re going to open it up to the audience for any questions and answers.

So going into the next slide, slide number 5 a Program Overview, and I’m going to hand the presentation over to our Program Director Mr. Larry Parnell.

Larry: Welcome everyone. I appreciate you dialing in today. I hope you’ll find this interesting. It’s a research that we did right after the election to look at the impact of social media on voter preferences and where they get their information. But as Bobby indicated just briefly let me tell you a bit about our program whether you’re not familiar, it is a full Master’s Degree Program which is offered by the George Washington University College of Professional Studies. It is delivered fully online. The degree you receive from our program is the same degree you would receive if you came to our program on campus in Washington DC.

Our focus really is on the practical application of Public Relations and Strategic Planning. We are not an academic program per se in the sense that people come to us on their way to get a PhD, although that has happened in recent times. Our focus is really on how to improve your public relations skills and or transition to PR as a new career if that’s where you find yourself.

The Curriculum consists of 11 core courses in one capstone project which I’ll talk about in some detail when we get there. Some of the courses include, as you might imagine, right off the bat we look at a writing course, although everyone usually comes to our program with some degree in background in writing. It’s our view that writing is a constant source of emphasis that we focus on that right away in a course that is led by an individual who was the AP Bureau Chief in London for almost 25 years. He teaches the online program, he gets excellent reviews.

We also have courses on Marketing Communications, Issues Management and Crisis which of course everyone is interested in these days. Corporate Social Responsibility is an area of opportunity we believe for the public relation profession and for public relations professionals. And so we have a course dedicated to that. The focus of that really is that social responsibility in a corporate setting is a business strategy that has a communications component, not just a communication strategy. Now we also have Survey courses on Public Relations, so the basic overview course that focus on ethics.

A course on Research. Research is very important both pre and post. Your plan implementation and development. We have a course that we’ve just revived that some people might find scary but it’s important we believe to be around a professional. And that is the fundamentals, basic fundamentals of finance and management for PR professionals. This is designed really to equip you to be in those conversations at the highest levels of your organizations or the highest level of your client organizations. When sophisticated matters are being discussed with a financial implication we want to make sure you are conversant, able to contribute to those and discuss the financial implications of the strategies the company’s considering and the PR strategy to support that. It is not a MBA; it is more the understanding of finance and management, so it applies to the PR world.

We have a course on Public Opinion and the capstone as I mentioned is a course that it comes at the end as the name implies. And that is when our students engage in putting together a comprehensive communications plan, or an in depth case study of a recent communications situation in a group setting to demonstrate how they have learned and the information they have gathered, developed and refined from the beginning of our program. So we want to make sure that your plan that you put forward has a good media strategy, is budgeted properly, has a research component. Has an outreach to the press and to the public opinion leaders, etc, etc. So that is the benefit of that capstone course. And we’ve had a great success and some of our students are actually producing work that we’re going to be publishing in both scholarly journals as well at the PR trades.

The typical student in our online program is a little different than our On Campus program mostly in terms of age and level of experience. Typically our online students are in their mid to late 30s, some older, some younger. More females than males as is expected in the profession these days. Students come to us for at least an undergraduate degree of course, some with Masters Degrees, some with Law degrees. And they’re looking to develop or enhance their skills in PR, thus they pursue a Master’s degree in our program. They have job titles and backgrounds in PR, public affairs, corporate communication, membership development if they’re in a non-profit organization. We also have some career changes, for former journalists like myself who have decided to enter the public relations industry. Well in my case it was many years ago.

And there’s all kinds of reasons for pursuing the degree. But what it really comes down to is getting an advanced degree in communications from a prestigious school whose reputation shows up on your resume and your CV when you apply for jobs. And we say GW represents that.

Benefits from the program we believe are listed and noted here. Probably the two most important is the value of the network of alumni and colleagues and friends that you build through our program, but also the alumni of George Washington University which numbers over 250,000 worldwide. It’s a very strong network of people and they’re always looking out to help each other. In the public relations sector now this program has been in existence for six years. So we’ve got increasingly highly placed graduates of our program. We’re looking to where possible help recent graduates of our program to advance their careers as well.

And the other element of this is that you walk out of the program not only with skills and ability to move forward in your career, but a very marketable credential that is a certificate or a Master’s degree from George Washington University in public relations. Now, we’ve had some recent research that has shown, in PR week in particular, that a master’s in public relations can be an important differentiator when someone is looking at two candidates for a job and one has a masters and one doesn’t. The notion from the recruiters we’ve talked to is that it indicates the person is committed to their career and is working hard at developing new skills versus relying solely on experience. So that is something to keep in mind if you think about this.

Okay, so let’s move to the topic for today which is a recent research we did in conjunction with ORI on the Impact of the Social Media on the 2012 Election. I’m on the next slide now Bobby. This is part of a series of research efforts that we do at George Washington University and the College of Professional Studies looking at factors that influence the media, public opinion, political situations. And then we look to apply that research to our degree programs, in this case the public relations program.

So I’m going to focus, on the next slide you’ll see there’s a number of outcomes from this study that we were looking for. But for our purposes in public relations the primary one was looking at the perceived credibility of social media relative to other sources of information, i.e. traditional media, [unintelligible 00.09.52] etc. We really wanted to examine how prevalent and how impactful social media postings, writings, recommendations, likes, tweets, whatever you want to call them, had on people. The effect they have on people and forming an opinion, influencing their buying behavior, influencing their support for a cause or reaching the media.

Quickly look at the demographics of this study, it’s very important. Whenever you look at research it’s very important that you understand the demographics. How many people responded, in this case 800? The demographics slide following after this shows the age group as well as the education levels and the household income levels. These are important things to look at when you look at research. It makes you understand who the audience was that were surveyed, so the conclusions drawn from the research you can understand them perhaps better. Next slide please.

So while there’s a lot of research, this is taken from the deck of almost 50 slides. There’s two or three key areas that I want to talk about. The first one is comparing the quality and credibility of traditional versus social media. Which if you go to the next slide Bobby you’ll see we’ve got a breakout here by age group and the perception of is social media… the quality of information that you get on social media sites how do you compare that in terms of reliability and credibility to traditional media. And the breakouts here in terms of the age groups are very instructive, you’ll see that in the age group of 18 to 35 we’re talking about over 50% view the social media as being people of higher quality. Whereas the older members of our survey group and not society in general perhaps look at social media as having less credibility in terms of political outcomes or media in general than does the so called traditional media.

The key point here then is that younger respondents to this survey, and perhaps extrapolated to the larger population, the social media and traditional media are interchangeable in terms of quality of information and value of information and the ability to act and respond to that information. This is a big shift from the so called traditional media. It merely underscores the rise in social media in terms of reaching this community. It impacts you in terms of your public relations planning, it impacts you in terms of media relations, it impacts you on all kinds of things that might not have been traditionally what you would do. It also, depending upon the market you’re trying to reach, tells you that the older respondents of the survey still prefer traditional media in terms of getting their information and relying on it. So that’s an important slide, an important fact from the study.

The next key area or the next slide talks about specifically how social media was used by the respondents to the survey to follow up the election. And if you look at the next slide you’ll see the use of social networks for political activities the most primary activity of anyone that we surveyed, this is all age groups, was to keep up with political news. And this is sites like Twitter and Facebook as well as the websites of traditional media and Huffington Post blogs, etc, etc. This is important only in that it underscores the news is valuable to the respondents whether it comes in this case online or in the traditional media. And so that was what most people used it for, following speeches, tweets by candidates, responses to tweets by candidates issues, etc.

The next slide in terms of how social media impacts the shaping of opinions. Again important from a public relations perspective is how you plan your outreach. The key takeaway from this slide from my perspective is that the demographic group 18 to 35 sees that the social media is very influential on shaping their perception in this case of the candidates any issues in the election. But I think it’s a fairly easy leap to go from that to their reliance on this to shape their opinions and their perceptions of companies, of celebrities, of corporations, of products and services. I don’t think it’s a big leap there. Not surprisingly the older members of our responsive group did not see it as much, but that number is increasing as well in terms of reliance and affecting their opinions. Next slide please.

So when you’re looking at social media, any kind of media, one of the questions that always comes up is media bias. So we examined whether or not the respondents felt that there was more or less media bias in social media versus traditional media, and talking here again about company websites as well Twitter, Facebook, etc. And the key area, the key takeaway here from my perspective is that again this younger age group 18 to 35 felt that the bias was similar. It does not necessarily mean that one is more reliable or more trustworthy, if you want to be cynical, than the other but there’s really no difference.

So therefore an article or an item that appears on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or any location like that is perceived as generally as biased or unbiased, depending on your perspective, as you might see in the New York Times print edition or on their webpage. And again the older group felt that traditional media is more reliable. Their sense of bias was that perhaps social media was a little more emotional, a little less reliable. So this is important from point of view of planning your PR strategies regardless of what your organization does or what your candidate, if you’re talking about candidates, does.

Okay, so let’s move on to conclusions and Implications and take aways from this. As I mentioned this is a subset of a deck of slides. There’s probably in excess of 40 slides that we did in conjunction with the ORI research people. And copies of the full report are available upon request. Bobby will be able to get your request to me if you’d like to see them. The Conclusions and Implications that I’d like to take away, moving to the next slide please Bobby, and there’s a number on here. But from my perspective, or a public relations planning perspective, which is the focus of this call today and our master’s degree program, is that what we’re seeing is that social media has closed whatever credibility gap existed from the onset to now as a news and information source very similar to and perceived equally important as so called traditional media. This is very important in thinking about you’ve got to monitor media and you’ve got to focus on how your brand is being treated and characterized on social media as well as other traditional media.

Another take away that I think is an emphasis is that it’s important research tells us, and this is probably intuitive to many of you who are active on social media, that it’s important to build your social network before you need them. This is especially true not only in political campaigns, but in issues management. To put up a website in response to a situation that develops is to be behind. You should have established a website and be involved in Facebook and Twitter and other dominant social media accounts engaging in the dialogue with your stakeholders before the time comes that you need to use this platform to communicate. Building it in response to a situation looks [unintelligible 00.17.57]. So the recommendation is to build it before you need it because when the time comes you will want to have it established on the social media sphere.

The next slide, moving onto other Conclusions and Implications that we see as important take aways for the public relations world. And that is that from a social media perspective, this is probably no surprise to many of you who are active in this state, visuals – the old saying a picture is worth a 1000 words, visuals on social media, pictures inserted into tweets or postings on Facebook or videos on You Tube are worth far more than a 1000 words in terms of getting a message across and looking authentic and providing some frame of reference to your issue or your candidate or your product or server.

And really the question that you have to ask yourself from a monitoring perspective is are you using social media to gain insight into what your audience is thinking and feeling and believing about your brand. Or are you just posting news as you see fit. In other words it is a two way communication vehicle and it provides an opportunity on a daily, hourly, minute by minute basis, if you wish, to take the pulse of your public and your stakeholders. And most companies don’t take advantage of this as much as they should.

So in closing I would just remind you that we recently thought we’d bring this up, one, because we think it’s interesting and timely. Two, because it’s an example of the type of research that we do at the university and our students are very often involved in doing this research. And then the opportunity that comes out of this is that we can assess the trends, examine their impact on the public relations profession and then develop our materials and our classroom activities and our assignments on the basis of what this research tells us. So the program is not static, the program is dynamic and constantly being evaluated and updated consistent with what we hear from students of alumni, but also what we read and hear and see from research in the marketplace. And I think that makes for a very attractive program in this current age.

So with that Bobby I’ll hand it back over to you to talk about some start dates and other details.

Bobby: Thank you very much for that Larry. You’re more than welcome to contact our enrollment team with that for a Summer 2 start date. Just mark it off on your calendar as July 1st 2013. And then we also have our Fall 1 start date available as well which is August 26, 2013. And so those are some key dates just to mark off on your calendar. Now, we’re going to open up the Q&A very shortly. However, we’ll like to hear more or less from the audience. We do have a couple of short answer questions for you. You can go ahead and enter that in on the chat box on the right hand side. We’d like to ask you how did you find or how did you enjoy today’s webinar. And how did you find out about today’s webinar as well. So whenever you get a moment just go ahead and enter that in on the right hand side.

So we’re going to open this up for questions and answers. And Larry we actually received some very detailed questions about what you discussed today. So my first question…

Now, one question is because after talking about the 2012 election can you speak to the worst and best social media moves that were made by each presidential candidate?

Larry: Well, I think by all accounts unless we have… one of our own campus students is doing her capstone project examining this; she’s weighing the social media performance of the two campaigns and documenting the various things you ask about. The early indications from her paper are that, no surprise, that the Obama campaign was much more effective in harnessing the power of social media to network to drive voters to bring issues to the fore, to raise money. And in many cases the Romney campaign was playing catch up. In part keep in mind that the Obama campaign had a head start, having really started this in an aggressive way in the 2008 timeframe.

So they were perfecting a model that they had initially developed while the Romney campaign was ramping out. And they did certainly more than an adequate job. But I think most accounts will prove that the Obama campaign was highly effective in responding to negative attack ads and putting word out about the president’s positions on various issues, to drumming up support for events and activities in the given markets, networking with people using Facebook to get groups together to sign petitions, to join rallies, etc, etc. So I think that the campaigns in terms of weighing the two campaigns, I would say Obama’s campaign was probably clearly ahead of the Romney campaign.

Bobby: Excellent, thank you very much for that sir. And now going back to your presentation, what makes social media a higher source for the election?

Larry: Well, I think that what we’re finding is that perhaps it is because it is person to person. And this is really a good question and worth some study. But my sense is that social media is person to person like to like kind of communication as well as it is broad based across, you know, a whole sphere of people who are following a certain candidate or a certain issue on Twitter. Whereas the traditional media, especially in the age group that we’re focusing on here, which is of course 18 to 25 or 35, traditional media tends to be perceived as being slower, more in depth perhaps, but not as responsive and filtered perhaps by the bias or the lack of bias on the given reporter.

So I think the attractiveness for social media, and this applies to moving forward to companies, products and services, organizations trying to raise money for charities, the connection that social media provides is more direct than it is… if you were an intermediary like the New York Times or Washington Post, LA Times, whatever, or CNN. And I think what you’re finding it’s so much so that the traditional media outlets are pushing a lot of news out on their websites and then adding in perspective and more detail in their publications on their segments. Because of the nature of the immediacy and the personal connection of social media provides to each other and its audiences.

Bobby: Excellent, thank you very much for that Larry. Another question that we have, how has Obama’s social media strategy changed from his 2008 campaign to his 2012 campaign?

Larry: Well, that’s a book, maybe a movie that’s going to be done on that. But I think the biggest difference probably is it was very broad based in 2008 and sort of covered the waterfront. Whereas by most accounts, and I’m anxious to read this student’s final paper, but my sense is that there was much more depth in terms of interest groups and focus groups and individuals who have a point of view on an issue. It was used to drive fund raising; it was used to drive support for initiatives. The Obama campaign, just like a lot of organizations now run their campaign probably as well, show analysis of websites and Facebook postings and Google researches and Tweets can tell that you’re interested in environmental issues and therefore drive a lot of content to you based on the president’s position on environmental issues.

So they’ve got very sophisticated in the same way that if you’re on, you know, on your Facebook page and you’re getting emails or Facebook postings about buying a house. All of a sudden ads start appearing about mortgage companies and real estate companies on the side. The same strategy was applied by the Obama campaign and very effectively.

Bobby: Excellent, thank you very much for that sir. How can employees integrate social media within their companies, not just political campaigns?

Larry: Yes, that’s the point of this study and I’m glad you asked that question. I think that what we’re seeing now, especially it was traditionally the view of consumer product companies are very concerned about consumer perception of their products. So there were very active social media special coupons, special offers, you know, back now and you can come into the store early. Driving a lot of retail traffic. But it’s now also really… it’s moving up into financial services companies and other non-traditional, you know, retailers who are using social media to find out what’s on the minds of their customers and perspective customers, design products and services to meet those needs and then push that information out across all media but more and more on social media.

And then, as I mentioned before, using Google analytics and other ways to analyze that, providing information to people who are interested in a given product or service at a given time. A little big brother perhaps but that’s where it’s moving. So it’s beyond… political campaigns, much like traditional communication drive new trends. And these trends are showing up in advance companies using social media. I’ve also seen a recent presentation where the Red Cross used social media in Hurricane Sandy who identify when phones went down and when people didn’t have any power. But they had their smartphone, they could post that they’re at the corner 5th and Main and there’s a problem here. And there’s people who need services. And the Red Cross was able to use geo-locate and go and actually provide those services to them.

So there’s all kinds of location and preferences and services that people are using social media to identify and deliver right to the customer’s doorstep so to speak.

Bobby: Excellent, thank you very much for that Larry. A question that we had floating around is what is the most reliable social media output to engage with the audience?

Larry: I think most of the research that we’ve seen recently would put clear as the most effective means to communicate. Not to the general public but we’re seeing more and more that’s the way reporters want to be communicated with and with their stories fixed to them with links and photographs, etc, embedded in the tweet because, you know, 147 characters they communicate real quick. It’s a yes or no, they don’t need to read a long email page, they don’t have to read a letter in the mail.

So I think that the platform that is probably emerging as the most beneficial from a communications perspective is Twitter. Facebook is a little more informal and there’s efforts being made by Facebook now just to step that up. I saw a presentation at the same conference I mentioned earlier. But Linked In is going to start using… they want to drive content on their sites and be more than just a networking site. They also want to be a news and information and lifestyle site. So they’re looking at it for content, studies, research, opinion pieces, they can learn Huffington Post of course all the blogs are out there. But probably the most influential media outlet, social media outlet is Twitter.

Bobby: Excellent, thank you very much for that sir. Another question that we have from our audience is traditional media often use social media sort of post tweet, etc, as a source. Do folks by that by large trust traditional media over social media as a reliable output?

Larry: One of the slides I referenced is that depending on the age group the perception is that one is as reliable and biased or unbiased as the other. And certainly with the younger demographics you don’t see a difference between Facebook postings, blogs, Twitter accounts, etc, where news and information is portrayed in the newspaper. So that’s driving newspapers and traditional media outlets have really changed their strategy. I think that’s probably the answer to that question, more and more people see them as equally reliable which may be either praise or criticism depending upon your perspective about how reliable you think the media is to begin with.

Bobby: Thank you very much for that Larry. Another question is do you think social media is more important for political influence over business?

Larry: No, I don’t. I think what we’re finding is that business is watching and seeing what’s happening in the political realm and applying it in the business realm, which is a really important distinction and a big part of what we do at George Washington University. We’re not a program or a school; it’s only a design for people who want to go into politics that may be a perception some people have.

Where our focus is identifying what’s going on in the marketplace generally in this case the political realm and social media and how that applies and impacts your business, your corporation, your non-profit organization if you’re non-profit, your client if you work in an agency setting. So what we’re seeing and the reason we did this research was to see what is going on in this sphere and how that affects public relations elsewhere.

So this is trying to identify best practices in one arena which is politics, and apply that to the business world. And overseeing is that the business community is seeing what’s happening, the corporate community, the non-profit community and leveraging social media borrowing the skillsets developed by the political arena to advance their own agendas.

Bobby: Excellent, thank you very much for that Larry. We’re just going to take two to three, four questions. One question that we have is have you seen any differences in the impact use of social media in non-election years versus election years. Does the impact and use carry on after a major infrequent event such as the presidential election?

Larry: Now, that’s a very good question and one we’re learning about now unfortunately. And that is that social media has been a big part of the Obama administrations to generate public support for gun control legislation. And while we got farther along than perhaps people have gotten in the past with gun control, ultimately it did not get through as of yesterday. But it will be interesting to see what happens, how social media and other platforms are used to keep the issue alive, to generate more emotional and financial support for some form of gun control. Whether you view it or not it’s initiating academic exercise.

You know, it’s the same thing that the business community is doing, which is taking social media lessons learned and applying it in a business setting. Politicians who get elected and are in office at any level are using social media to be more responsive, to be more in tune with what their constituents want. And to generate popular support for causes or issues they’re concerned about. So it’s not just an election year thing now, it is becoming part of the daily process of governing and it’s a daily process of running your business.

Bobby: One question is about any comparison between political campaigns in the United States compared to other countries with social media?

Larry: That’s a very good question. And we’re looking into that. We’ve got a research project underway. George Washington University and the College that I’m part of, it’s a very active program in Latin America. We are doing some research of that very subject. Our suspicion is that it’s equally, if not more so, a factor for no other reason that there’s been certain countries in the world infrastructure and media reach is limited, whereas social media and the use of social media for information on peoples’ smartphones is not as limited.

So it will be fun to find out. My guess is that more and more in the so called developing world and elsewhere outside the United States, Latin America in particular, Asia, China, elsewhere, social media is becoming a way to get word out and without relying on traditional media. And so I’m wondering if that will be another study will come out.

Bobby: Excellent, thank you very much for that Larry. So we’re going to take one more question. But we do have a series of other questions though but which we will address later on. This is a situational based question, I am 57 years old, I have 20 years’ experience in communications, much of it in PR, Government Relations and agencies. What can I gain from GW’s online SPR program?

Larry: I would say that that is a common question that we get from students above a certain age. And my advice would be the gain is first of all the marketable credential I mentioned, the ability to perhaps someday teach. I think having an advanced degree. And very probably this very topic we’re discussing right now. In my case, and I’m of a certain age, close to that age, in fact a little bit older, I did not learn about social media and how to use it and products and service campaigns and corporate campaigns.

I went to school in the early years of my career before I came into George Washington University as an academic. So I think one of the value adds that a degree program would do would bring you current with a lot of these kinds of activities and how to apply them that you may not have picked up along the way. And refine them in a way that’s a little more academic and disciplined than going to a seminar here and there and learning about social media. So that would be the first thing.

The other thing I mentioned, the network that you get of people that are in program that you get to know, the learning and the sharpening of your skills regardless of how good they are, how deep they go, and the ability to stay current and get reenergized about the business. We often find from our students who come in above a certain age that they come in somewhat skeptical and come out very energized because of the nature – the collaborative nature of the program, the collaborative nature of the profession and the network that gets created for you as a student at the George Washington University.

Bobby: Excellent, thank you very much for that Larry. That is all the time that we have for today. And here are some closing thoughts before we conclude this presentation. An advisor will be following up with you over the next few days to go over any questions that were not addressed during this presentation. A recording of this session will be available on our website within the next few weeks. And if you’d like to contact an advisor immediately you can go ahead and do so, which follow us on the web, which is You can email us at You can contact us 1.888.989.7068. And of course for being social media savvy we’re available on Facebook which is And on Twitter,

Larry: Let me just add to that Bobby to make the offer that my twitter handle is @gwprmasters. And you’re welcome to follow me and connect with me on that. You can also reach me by email at And we do have a blog and all those things on our website as well. I encourage you to follow us. And we talk about our research and our programs and our studies all the time. So I wanted to share that as well.