A Revolution in Political Communications

It’s a safe bet that the large numbers of younger Canadians among the 3 million new voters who cast ballots in the last election did not open a paper or watch TV news to get their political information. This is the internet, mobile phone and social media generation, and they were well served on these platforms by the Liberals particularly.

The people around Justin Trudeau, and the man himself, took full and skilled advantage of these new forms of political communication. The young, welcoming image of Justin and the adoring crowds at every stop flooded social media daily and surely had a major impact.

Justin has over one million Twitter followers – the first Canadian politician to reach that number.  His Facebook posts often receive over 200,000 “likes” almost daily! This volume was normal during campaign, and the enormous number of selfies and phone photos, tweeted and retweeted from his overflowing events then and now are uncountable  

Justin was also the most researched politician on Google last year. When people looked up his name they wanted to know: #1: “Is he the youngest PM?” (no – Joe was at 40!) #2 “what has he promised?” #3 “When will he legalize pot?”

The cynic might conclude that this river of short takes, banal curiosity, sunny images and shallow material does not serve the public interest in forming the content and context of current politics.

One of the few academic studies in this area begs to differ. A paper by US, Australian and British academics entitled Performing for the young networked citizen? Celebrity politics, social networking and the political engagement of young people concludes:  

The use of social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, by politicians to engage young citizens can be seen as a further example of the emergence of celebrity politics. While regarded by some commentators as evidence of the trivialization of political life, we emphasize the potential for popular culture and media entertainment to be more socially inclusive, democratizing and influential in public policy making.

New media, moreover, go far beyond the inherent image and short take bias of social media.

Take online desktop and mobile news sources, Both CBC and CTV have hugely followed, content and image rich aps and sites. CBC.ca, the public corporation’s news site, attracts an average of 11.8 million unique visitors per month.

CTV news online interestingly calculated in a year-end story that one piece about Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau cracked number three on its desktop list. Election coverage on new media was also impressive. Items about the election, CTV/Nanos poll results and post-election stories did well on the CTV site, receiving over 1.6 million hits on mobile and 1.2 million hits on desktop.

Traditional print media of course, particularly the Globe and Mail, the  Ottawa Citizen, TheToronto Star and the Ottawa bureaus of CTV and CBC can still argue that that their in-depth coverage, ability to break stories, and the appearance of their commentators and journalists on political TV shows have an agenda setting function. This is certainly demonstrable – but falling circulation and ratings have weakened their direct impact, especially among the young.

The hard truth is that the mass exodus of young people from both print and electronic media – including radio, which was once the media of the young and at least exposed them to some news – leaves political communicators with only one choice to reach them – social media and, to some extent, e-mail.

Related: Five Quick Wins for Trudeau’s First Day in Office.

Liberals (and Conservatives too – although their demographic targets differed)  took full advantage of e-mail’s more personalized capabilities during the last campaign.The Liberal’s 80,000 volunteers and tens of thousands of donors and party members were bombarded daily with e-mails, photos and news from the campaign, a technique pioneered in Obama’s first election campaign.

And in terms of image wars, Justin wins hands down here and abroad.  Just weeks after including Trudeau in its list of “10 unconventional alternatives to the sexiest man alive,” the US fashion bible Vogue released the online version of their print piece about our “youthful, optimistic” leader. Needless to say the sexy shots of Trudeau embracing his wife from the piece were widely seen on Facebook and Twitter.

Perhaps the revolution in political communications could not have happened without the appealing Justin and his photogenic family – whatever, he and his handlers became its masters, and how Canadians get their political news has exploded and will never be the same.