It was during an address to a joint session of Congress that a relatively unknown South Carolina congressman became a household name overnight by calling President Obama a liar.
After Rep. Joe Wilson pointed at the president and audibly shouted, “You lie!” in response to an Obama claim that his healthcare proposal would not cover illegal immigrants, the South Carolina Republican was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. The moment galvanized politicians, pundits, and voters—both pro- and anti-Wilson.
As congressional leaders condemned Wilson’s outburst and pleaded civility, a viral movement swept across the online community mirroring the Tea Party dynamic that would govern the 2010 midterm elections. Both Wilson and his Democratic opponent raised millions of dollars online in a matter of weeks for a congressional race that wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen before Wilson’s outburst.
Leaving ideology aside for a moment, what’s a campaign to do when faced with its own “You lie” moment? In an age when the most nimble and responsive campaigns are often the ones that win online, it’s not a bad idea to give a game plan some serious thought.
Start by realizing that events of this nature are extremely time-sensitive and the narrative surrounding them can quickly become muddled. It’s crucial that your campaign leverage the Internet and social media to fundraise, garner positive earned media, recruit new supporters and rally your base—quickly and efficiently.
A few dos and don’ts when it comes to converting controversy into cache online:
DO Strike While the Iron is Hot—and Keep Striking. The very moment your campaign has its own “You lie” moment, the clock starts running on how long you’ve got to make effective use of it. Within days, if not hours, it will have been analyzed to death on cable news and you’ll have lost your ability to get your message out. In the case of Wilson’s big-money moment, his team knew they had to work quickly and were able to bring in over $1 million from conservatives online in the hours immediately following “You lie.”
In late 2010, liberal lion Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) took to the Senate floor to filibuster the extension of Bush-era tax cuts. He stayed there for more than nine hours. The “Bernie-buster” was a surefire earned media goldmine and his staff immediately took to Twitter to create a social media sensation. Within hours, as Sanders still held the floor, he had acquired over 4,000 new Twitter followers and became the top-trending Twitter topic for most of the day. Team Sanders used outgoing tweets from the senator’s official account to define the message, creating a drumbeat that was quickly echoed by liberal groups like MoveOn.org.
DO Money Bomb. Money bombs are an online fundraising tool that became part of the campaign lexicon during the 2010 midterms, when candidates pulled in Tea Party-fueled millions via online donations from all over the country. The number one item you need for a successful money bomb is a specific, galvanizing message or event, which you’ve got. Now you need to turn it into a catchy fundraising email to blast to any and all campaign lists. The Sanders campaign, for example, could have emailed supporters repeatedly during the “Bernie-buster” and asked them to donate $1 for each hour he remained on the Senate floor. Small asks are key and most will give more.
DO Solicit Voter Responses. This will likely be a love-it-or-hate-it moment in terms of how voters feel about your candidate. You won’t convert anyone who was turned off by the remark, so your time is much better spent activating those who thought it was right on. Social media is key here. Develop a dedicated Twitter hashtag and special Facebook badge to allow supporters and surrogates to spread the word, encouraging like-minded folks to repost or retweet. Be sure to harvest the new supporters you’ve recruited.
DO Be Open to Criticism. In a situation like this, is it better to open up your campaign’s social media platforms for comments—both positive and negative—or should you closely monitor and police feedback? We think it’s important that you are, or at least appear to be, open to criticism. This doesn’t mean that you need to accept or placate your opponent’s point of view, but actively stifling negative feedback merely gives your opponents another talking point and creates a process story.
That being said, if your candidate’s comments have really fired up the opposition, things can get ugly. If detractors are making extreme accusations against your candidate, you should delete selected comments that truly cross the line. Allegations of racism or use of profanity would fall into that category. Just be prepared to defend it on the grounds that you’re committed to maintaining a Facebook page appropriate for viewers of all ages.
DON’T Engage Opponents. In the wake of any moment that generates significant controversy, comments and tweets directed at your candidate will often be unfair and he or she will likely be chomping at the bit to respond. Resist the temptation to engage directly with individual opponents via social media; it is a no-win situation for you. If there are serious allegations being made that the campaign decides must be addressed, do so via a press release or cable news interview which you can push out via YouTube and encourage supporters to post and tweet.
John F. Kennedy famously pointed out, “When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” Many would view a moment like Wilson’s as a crisis to be avoided; but if your campaign reacts quickly, intelligently, and maintains message discipline, you can turn a potential crisis into an advantage.
Patrick Hynes is the founder and president of Hynes Communications, a global agency focused on new media and online communications for public affairs clients. Amelia Chasse serves as an account director at the firm.