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A campaign fought on social media

By December 28, 2010Opinion

Guest Post: Jack Yan is CEO of Jack Yan & Associates, publisher of Lucire, and director of the Medinge Group. He ran for Mayor of Wellington this year and netted 12 per cent of the vote. He was a heavy user of social media and discusses his campaign’s relationship with Facebook and Twitter.

On September 25, 2009, I announced my candidacy for Mayor of Wellington. The news broke on my blog first, and thanks to Twitterfeed, it wound up on my Tweetstream. By the afternoon some media had picked up the news, principally online news sources.

The local broadsheet had me as a footnote for most of the year till election day on October 9, 2010, with a few exceptions, when the field for the job narrowed. In May 2010, it had me in its first poll. I was called ‘Other people’. It included a councillor who was not running in that poll. Closer to the election, the same publisher had another poll, where they had me in the 2 per cent region.

I wound up with 12 per cent of the vote, higher than any poll had had me—and roughly where our own polling positioned me. A podium finish, and one that I can be very grateful for, from those voters who saw merit to what I had to say.

While I’m singling out one medium for criticism, it shows how narrow-mindedness hurts the outsider’s chances. And how social media might help those with the best ideas get noticed.

My bias will show with the next statement but I believe Wellington is the most “cerebral” of New Zealand cities. Some in the dead-tree industry might cling to a dying belief that people can be controlled through one medium, but, as the year showed, that was not the case. Wellington was, at one point, on track to be the most wired capital in the world. While we’ve fallen behind, the city’s reasonably well educated population was a good grounding for someone with good ideas to have a stab at the mayoralty. But this wasn’t the reason I adopted social media relatively heavily.

What does any democratic politician want? I would say that in a democracy, that politician must be a representative of the people. The mayor’s job is not to govern, it is to represent.

Wellington City has some inherent problems, many of them bureaucratic. It’s only natural that certain institutions form after three terms under one mayor. I felt a clean brush was needed, to make things work for Wellingtonians again. The key to this was transparency: everything from having a city blog where registered citizens could comment, and have their comments bear the weight of formal submissions, to webcasting council meetings. E-governmental processes were also key. City management needs to be as relevant to the audience as company management, and if people are interacting in social media, why has the city failed to engage? The CEO of the Wellington City Council, after all, is paid over $400,000 per annum—the justification being that a comparable CEO overseeing a comparably sized private-sector workforce would earn that. If that’s the case, then the WCC needs to be as present in social media as a typical private-sector firm.

That was reason number one for me to use social media: to live my brand. To do by example what I would do once in office. More than once on the campaign trail, I promised followers I would not “do an Obama”: I would continue to Tweet after October 9 if elected. I would not only return to Twitter when it appeared there would be some crisis that needed political marketing.

Secondly, I am a believer that through dialogue comes new ideas. And since I was on Facebook and Twitter already, the online medium seemed to be the best way through which I could generate dialogue.

I had to advance some policies that were unique. Free wifi was one: we knew that the incumbent had said no to this when some business people approached her in 2008. I had met with various companies to prove that it was possible, and got a lot of costs together. I could not rest on a single policy, and a few appealed to that cerebral nature of Wellingtonians. There was the idea of creative business clusters, which could fuel job growth and exports by generating IT jobs in the city: I estimated that this could grow the city’s GDP by over 10 per cent.

Meanwhile, there also had to be policies that were representative of what Wellingtonians thought right now, because that want would not change by election time: the retention of water as a public resource, blocking any moves to privatize it. The fact that our debt was ballooning was another problem: it had more than doubled over six years. I stood against a Wellington super-city, because most Wellingtonians believe each part of the region is governable; and if San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and San Mateo could be separate, then why couldn’t we?
I would not have known of any of these if I hadn’t been engaging people prior to September 2009.

The other limb to this is the understanding of the idea of citizenship. Inherent to that is believing that people are intelligent adults to begin with. People are not there for politicians to talk down to. It is only through recognition of everyone’s free will and thought that we can feel a sense of belonging.

Having set a few things in place, it was time to go to open up. Let people attack me if they disagreed. If I was to represent, it wouldn’t be about my imposing my will on other people. If I was wrong, I’d have to eat humble pie or find a more moderate position that a majority could live with. To do that meant being accessible on Twitter and Facebook, and sticking to one promise (which I fulfilled): that I would answer every single query put to me on the campaign trail. With the exception of the Secretary of the Poneke Rugby Club, whose letter came just prior to a hospital stay (a recurring complaint with my digestion) and to whom I offer my apologies, I am confident I answered everyone, be they in written correspondence, email, by telephone, or via social media.

I complained, after all, that the Mayor and some councillors were inaccessible, and that Wellingtonians were getting things done not because of the WCC, but in spite of it. I wasn’t going to be shot down on that front.

I was comfortable with Twitter, because it had become second-nature to me. Facebook was another kettle of fish, because I constantly maintained a love–hate relationship with the service. I was one of the last mayoral candidates to set up a fan page (in January 2010), because I could not fathom the idea of having fans. Friends, supporters and voters, yes, but fans were the province of celebrities and some overpaid civil servants on TV1.

My campaign pushed for the setting up of a fan page, and I have to say that they were right. The fan page peaked at 743 members, reaching more than my opponents (though Councillor Celia Wade-Brown, the eventual victor, grew her page rapidly in the last months), and it proved to be a way to get my message out and, more importantly, engage with the public. The idea of dialogue remained firm throughout the campaign.

But what I did was not anything novel. If there is such a thing as the good old days, when supposedly councillors were more accessible and accountable, where Wellington and, indeed, New Zealand, were a more genteel place, then all I did was reflect that in a modern context.

In a smaller and more homogeneous Wellington with no internet, politicians did indeed go door-knocking and talked to people one on one. In 2010, people are busier. I had to earn a crust as well and we are all more guarded about our privacy. I sought the same dialogue those more representative politicians got from walking the beat. I simply did it with a different audience, believing in the cerebral, thinking Wellington.

By the time the first debates began in August—though Councillor Wade-Brown and I did a single debate in April, in French—I had had nearly a year of engagement. I had met, thanks to my campaign strategist, a good number of the residents’ associations around Wellington, so there was a real-world component to complement the online one. If people said that my debating performance was good, then I have only the citizens of Wellington to thank, for refining my ideas and my policies.

I also blogged. I’ve kept a blog since 2006, and have been blogging since 2003. For those who wanted to know my views, they’re not hard to find. At the back of my mind, for most of that time, I knew I would seek public office at some stage, so I made sure that what I wrote reflected what I believed in from day one.

I don’t want to knock the media. The media are vital to any election campaign. All I ever asked for, and all any candidate asks for, is a fair go. I am proud to say that radio reporting was, on the whole, true to that spirit: National Radio deserves huge credit and highlights just how important it is for us to maintain this resource. Our sole televised debate, on TVNZ7, helped cut through a great deal of clutter. The APN tabloids managed to give every mayoral and council candidate who responded suitable coverage, as did the Capital Times. Online reporting, too, distinguished itself and Scoop endeavoured to cover everything every candidate alerted them to. The fourth estate’s role is always important, more so when our democracy is at stake.

Of course I got a few things wrong. Our website was thrown together, and broke the first rule of integrated marketing communications. It simply looked different to all the other marketing collateral. Given more resources, we could have sorted that out. Our campaign graphics weren’t the best. We should have got our videos up earlier. And I still needed to eat, which meant that we couldn’t pursue some of the programmes that I wanted pre-election—the ideal scenario would have been to prove their mettle prior to election day.

Our campaign, ultimately, punched well above its weight. I credit the passion of each campaign team member, all of whom were thinkers—people who could look at things laterally and understand that we needed smarter ways of reaching people. We had, by some estimates, a fraction of the team of Mayor Prendergast and then-Councillor Wade-Brown, both of whom had party connections. Though the figures are not out yet, our own estimates indicated we also spent about a tenth of the campaigns that beat us. But spending a tenth netted us a vote that was a third of theirs. It wasn’t a victory, but it showed the effectiveness of social media in a financial sense.

I also hope that the campaign showed the effectiveness of social media in a democratic sense: that it is possible for a politician to be accountable with the public, to level with them every day, and to engage as one should. There would be fewer excuses for taking an ivory-tower approach to politics, which so many officials have hidden behind for far too long. Being distant from the people is the biggest mistake any politician can make: you fall out of touch with everyone’s worries and concerns, and awareness is the first step toward a solution.

In 2013, the year of the next mayoral election, social media will be even more a battlefront for political campaigning. Hopefully they will be a tool for transparency, so voters can get an idea of each candidate’s worth. We won’t be able to hide behind image or biased editorials; but similarly, we can cut through rumour and smear campaigns. It will return to that notion of “the good old days”, where we could have a one-to-one chat with our representatives, and our wishes will be better known by them.

[Jack Yan Photo by: Doug Rimington of Detune Photography]