Forget e-mail or personal Web pages. Engaging European voters these days requires serious Web cred. Just ask David Cameron, Britain's Conservative Party leader, who wants to be the country's next Prime Minister. Borrowing ideas from photo- and video-sharing sites such as Flickr and YouTube and social-networking sites such as News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace, Cameron launched his own video blog (www.webcameron.org.uk) on Sept. 30.
The artfully staged clips—the first one shows Cameron in his kitchen cleaning up after breakfast, explaining that he wants to "clean up" British politics—are drawing a mixed response from voters. "It's refreshing to see something as evidently sincere and unassuming (and, let's face it, as endearingly amateurish!) as WebCameron," writes one poster. Says another: "This is a shockingly superficial attempt to reach your younger constituents." And days after WebCameron launched, a rival Labour politician posted his own send-up on YouTube, inviting viewers to "sleep with my wife" and "take my kids."
Each poster has a point. There's nothing more cringe-inducing than seeing politicians who only recently mastered e-mail trying to "get real" with the YouTube generation. A gimmicky ploy to reach voters? No doubt, but Cameron and the growing number of European politicians who are finally following voters into the world of Web 2.0 should be commended for trying to engage the public in a two-sided debate instead of just talking at them.
New Campaign Tools
Indeed, there's no denying that though still in their early days, new media tools such as blogs, video blogs, and podcasts are fast becoming the 21st century equivalent of stump speeches, allowing politicians to reach a younger, more Web-savvy generation of voters. These tools also help keep the pols in the spotlight—in a way that the pols themselves usually can control.
For example, the Ulster Unionists might not be key players in the Northern Ireland negotiations held this month in Scotland. But their real-time blog, posted live from inside the talks, put them at the center of the action. "No serious politician can ignore the new media," Conservative blogger and broadcaster Iain Dale told attendees at the annual Conservative Party meeting in the beginning of October. "The party that really gets the new media is the party that's going to really reap the rewards in terms of extra votes."
Another big lure of the Net is that it enables politicians to circumvent strict limits on media time. Because blogs and podcasts don't qualify as air time, politicians are free to drone on endlessly in cyberspace—a loophole French politicians are eagerly exploiting in the run-up to the 2007 elections. "In politics, blogs and podcasting are becoming more powerful than traditional media," says Loïc Le Meur, one of France's most influential bloggers and European managing director for blogging software and services company Six Apart.
Former French Finance Minister and possible presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who began blogging two years ago, now has the second most popular blog in all of Europe (No. 1 belongs to comedian turned political blogger Beppe Grillo). France's Interior Minister and presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy kicked off the political podcasting craze last December, attracting more than 150,000 views and spawning countless imitators (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/27/05, "The Podcast Shaking Up French Politics").
French Socialist politician Laurent Fabius does regular podcasts, and the right-wing French political party UMP is even offering free blogs, as well as podcast and blog training, to its members. A growing number of elected officials are posting on France's YouTube equivalent, Dailymotion.
It's a similar story in Holland.
Eighteen months ago, Dutch politicians were reluctant to get online, says Guido Van Nispen, a leading Dutch blogger and managing partner at Amsterdam-based IT consultancy InterimIC. But with elections set for Nov. 22, "every major politician now has a Web 2.0 presence of some kind," he says. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende blogs, and Dutch Labour leader Wouter Bos records podcasts and keeps voters up to date with his blog, Woutersweb.
Too Interactive for Germany?
The head of Holland's Socialist Party, Jan Marijnissen, goes one better: He has his own podcast studio. When Marijnissen recently attached a Web camera to his car and let viewers follow him around for a day, the resulting video footage became a hugely popular—and rather funny—viral clip in Holland. The Socialist Party even runs its own Internet service provider, open to the public, called tomatonet (yes, really, the Party's symbol is a tomato).
German politicians, however, are a bit slower than their Continental neighbors to get on the Web 2.0 wagon. In the run-up to last year's elections, most political parties and their members had Web sites and blogs. But a quick scan of Wahl.de, as a portal for politicians' blogs, shows that very few remain active. "So far, politicians' blogs have had little political impact with voters, as they tend to just recycle prepared statements instead of engaging with voters," says Nico Lumma, one of Germany's leading bloggers, who also runs Blogg.de, a Cologne-based blog-hosting site. For instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel uses her weekly podcasts to essentially regurgitate speeches or discuss noncontroversial ideas such as funding the renovation of a Berlin museum.
Another German blogging expert, Nicole Simon, reckons that German politicians' reluctance to embrace new media is a cultural issue. "People don't mind listening to podcasts but they don't like the interactivity of blogs."
Not Without Pitfalls
And there are still politicians who are struggling to get it right. When former French Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin wanted to discuss his thoughts on Europe's relations with China, he did a podcast. But the massive red tome titled "La Chine" he used as a prop sparked more giggles than debate.
In Holland, the initial attempt at blogging by the leader of the Green Party, Femke Halsema, backfired. After getting nasty posts from right-wing bloggers, she decided to stop communicating. Her silence further enraged the posters who proceeded to deluge her blog. Her response: a link on her Web site called Fem Fem (a play on the satellite navigational system Tom Tom) that lets people download her voice into their car's navigational system. Well, it's still the early days.