How to get on message with the medium

The web’s characteristic strengths of interactivity and storability have presented more of a problem than a promise to political parties. Most were more comfortable prescribing the internet for their national economies than harnessing it to their partis

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Political parties around the world are groping their way towards an accommodation with the worldwide web. It is not a medium they like, because a website is the opposite of a soundbite. But slowly, slowly they are realising that with a little imagination it can do good things, even for them.
I have been re-reading the FT columns I have written on party sites over the past five years. In 1998 I said they were a mess. In 2001 I said they were an all-singing, dancing waste of money. The problem was that parties not only failed to use, but did not want, the gifts the web brought: most particularly its storage capacity and interactivity. Of course they did have long documents they could put online, but their communication focus was on take-it-or-leave-it packages of short messages. Great for posters; terrible for the web. As for interactivity: ugh, they had enough to do getting their message across, without having the public giving them more to think about.

Characteristic weaknesses remain


There has been quite a shift in the past two years, though many of the weaknesses remain. Most parties still use their home pages to transmit their own version of the news. The problem here is that it is too easy to skip elsewhere to find the same news more neutrally presented. So on Wednesday while the BBC news site was running the headline “Blair defeated over health vote”, the Labour Party’s lead was “Pioneers in our time: the health secretary today gave an electrifying speech…”. It is easier for opposition parties. The US Democrats were having fun with the CIA leak affair, while the Conservatives in the UK took pot shots at everything the government does. Maybe the Liberal Party of Australia has the best approach for a governing party: it simply offers access to policy documents and speeches. Visitors, journalists mostly I would guess, can spin them to their own ends.
There are still too many poorly-categorised documents – mostly in downloadable Adobe Acrobat form – which make it difficult to find what a party thinks about a particular issue. For example, the UK Liberal Democrats’ site carries many papers that can only really be digested on paper – I have printed out a 36-page report, “It’s about freedom”, which I hope will help me sleep tonight. It is fine to use the storage capacity of the web in this way, but only if you set up a journey that gives visitors first an easy route to information on a particular subject, then a summary of your views on a simple web page. Only then should you offer them the option of printing themselves a book.

Explanation and consultation


On the other hand, there are signs that parties are starting to use the web’s interactivity to help mould these documents, and therefore policies. The Australian Labor Party says that “many of the submissions to policy forums were received via this website”. Its British counterpart has a link in its Policy section labelled Virtual Policy Forum. It explains that “Partnership in Power” is a programme designed to forge ideas for the next election with the help of us, the masses. It provides several draft documents, along with an e-mail address for each to which we can send comments. At least I think we can: it is poorly organised, and lacks proper explanation. But it is a huge step on from the one-way broadcasting of the past.
The UK parties have also realised that the web may be useful as an internal communication device – those beefy documents are meat and drink to insiders. The LibDems have a discreet Extranet button, leading to a password protected area. Labour has home page links to areas for party members and local councillors.

Acquisition and imagination


The Americans have special areas for activists too, but they use their sites as acquisition as well as retention tools. The Republicans have pop-up boxes and banners to persuade you to sign up as a Team Leader. Fill in an e-mail address, and you find yourself at www.gopteamleader.com, “an online toolbox for Republican activists”. Here, you are told who is running for office locally, how you can help them, and what Action Items you might complete: poll voters by phone or write to the local paper, for example. Excitingly, Action Items will earn you GOPoints, which you can exchange for a leather PDA cover. The Democrats run a similar eCaptain scheme, where you can create your own ePrecinct of local supporters.
There are other signs that the parties are getting to grips with the medium. The Labour conference site had online chats with ministers, as well as non-stop video coverage. The Tories have a Council Tax calculator, where householders can see how much their local tax has gone up since 1997. Best of all, the US Democrats have introduced a weblog, or blog, called “Kicking Ass”. This is in effect a highly moderated discussion board, with an editor stirring things up, and visitors venting their spleens. It started on 8 September and by the end of the month had enough words to fill a stout book. The web’s storage space and interactivity beautifully combined: with imagination, even political parties can get it right.

First published 08 October, 2003
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