PR Blunder: McCain’s Astroturfing

John McCain has launched a “Spread the Word” initiative in which the U.S. Presidential candidate is asking supporters to copy-and-paste talking points in the comments sections of select blogs in exchange for “reward points redeemable for valuable prizes.”

As you all know, I avoid discussing the upcoming election here because I really don’t think the world needs another blogger pontificating about this race. That said, given our many conversations about social media campaigns, I wanted to briefly address this tactic.

First up, this is not a new practice; it’s called “Astroturfing.” Political campaigns have always recruited their volunteers to call-in to radio shows, write letters to editors, and show up at rallies. Many moons ago, when I briefly worked as a Healthcare lobbyist, I stayed up all night making the posters we gave to crowds for a rally on the capital steps. (Rule of thumb: always write in capital letters so the handwriting is less distinctive). What can I say, politics is pageantry.

So, with this in mind, it’s not the request to spread the word that bothers me – after all the whole point of social media is to spread the word about anything and everything. Whether it’s a CPG’s viral campaign or the latest celebrity gossip, social media is about sharing information from consumer to consumer.

Where I think McCain’s people failed is that they are not approaching social media organically. First of all, offering any kind of points system or incentive for supporters to spread the word undermines the whole nature of social media. There is nothing wrong with encouraging your followers to spread the word online. In fact, I usually provide my clients with a list of blogs and boards they should regularly post on. But, I don’t recommend pay-for-play as that turns the supporters into shills.

Similarly, cutting-and-pasting generic talking points that are not even relevant to the blog post will never be truly effective because people are far too SPAM-savvy. And, let’s face it, no one is more reviled, more despised, or more truly detested than the SPAMMER.

Had McCain’s people offered their followers some insight as to how to effectively seed these comment sections, the media might not have even picked up on the story. As it stands now, the news broke because bloggers were noticing that identical, generic comments were being posted. And, the comments were often irrelevant to the actual topic. I mean, really, would any of you believe that someone not affiliated with the campaign posted this comment:

John McCain has a comprehensive economic plan that will create millions of good American jobs, ensure our nation’s energy security, get the government’s budget and spending practices in order, and bring relief to American consumers. Click to learn how the McCain Economic Plan will help bring reform, prosperity and peace to America.

It’s so generic, you could fill-in-the-blank for either candidate’s name and you would still make an accurate statement. Plus, nobody – not even a Stepford Wife – speaks like this.

Social media is about authenticity. Nothing fans flames online like duplicity. Remember Sony’s PSP Flog? I’m not calling out the McCain campaign for a poor idea, just really poor execution of it. Had they been more subtle, had they instructed their fans to use their own words to tell McCain’s story, this would have been an effective method for demonstrating voter support.

Just remember, if you’re going to engage in Astroturfing, heed the advice of Christopher Buckley’s amoral but lovable hero, Nick Naylor: Do not get caught doing it.

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