Obama, Nasheed Nenshi and the era of hashtag politics

Obama, Nasheed Nenshi and the era of hashtag politics
Obama set the bar for social media use by politicians during his 2008 campaign.
While traditional media is still relevant for politicians and sitting governments, there’s an art to communicating effectively and authentically via social media. In the era of web 2.0, the key to an integrated campaign is ensuring the online components help to further the political brand and broaden its reach.

When California Senator Diane Feinstein put up the first campaign website in 1994, politics were barely on the periphery of the online ecosystem. It would take more than a decade for the advent of social media to completely change the way politicians and governments shape their party (and brand’s) narrative. Integrated campaigns – in the truest sense of the word – have become integral to political platforms especially given nearly 80 per cent of North Americans are online.

Unfortunately, not all politicians understand the power of marrying social media with their real-world pamphleteering.

Here are some of the best, truly integrated politicians spearheading the era of hashtag politics:


President Barack Obama

How could President Barack Obama not be at the top of the list? His mastery and true understanding of social media’s value helped catapult him into the White House. Obama’s 2008 campaign will likely go down in history as the first wide-scale political integrated branding campaign. From sending out voting reminders via Twitter to interacting with people on his official Facebook page, the soon-to-be world leader earned the digital hearts of the previously untapped social media-engaged millennial electorate. Not bad considering Twitter had just started picking up momentum in 2007 and the iPhone hadn’t even been released yet. In 2012, President Obama did it again despite the fact that Mitt Romney – unlike John McCain, Obama’s opponent in 2008 – had a team that firmly grasped the power of the social media integrated campaign.

Unfortunately they didn’t carry the digital cadence Obama did. For his re-election, Obama pumped $47 million into his digital campaign versus Romney’s $4.7 million. It paid off with Obama garnering twice as many Facebook “Likes” and almost 20 times as many re-tweets as his Republican opponent. Obama even opened a second Twitter account outside of his personal one associated with his presidency to specifically talk about the election.


Vice President Joe Biden

But enough gushing about Obama, Vice President Joe Biden spurred a media frenzy in April when the 71-year-old added Instagram to his stable of social media tools including Twitter and Facebook. His first photograph was a tasteful shot of the VP reading the paper with a pair of Ray-Bans in the foreground and the caption: “Vice President Biden’s getting ready to head to Pennsylvania with President Obama this afternoon, where he’ll lay out steps we can take to train America’s workers with the skills they need for good middle-class jobs. Follow @VP for the latest from the Vice President, and the occasional aviators pic.” But it was his second photo – a selfie with the President – that helped to boost his reach. With only 15 posts on Instagram, the VP has already gained nearly 130,000 followers. Biden has two twitter accounts with nearly a million followers combined and his team is active on both YouTube and Facebook. But the key to engaging the electorate (much like the relationship between brands and consumers) is to create authentic discussions by not having staff or a PR team be responsible for all communications in the digital environment. Both Biden and Obama recognize that and make strides when it comes to using the accounts themselves.


Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi

Sure, it might be a bit brash to stack the mayor of Canada’s prairie-logged oil city next to the most powerful politician in the world but when it comes to authentic communication and online brand building Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is a bull dog. Nenshi was a no-name business professor until 2010 when he utilized social media to sweep the Calgary mayoral election. Much like Obama, Nenshi laid the groundwork for the campaign through social media, igniting the young electorate by gathering thousands of followers on Facebook and Twitter. He used the support to build a door-knocking network and saturated the media with any interview or debate he could get involved in.

But perhaps his greatest strength has been making it completely clear he’s at the helm of his account by communicating directly with both supporters and critics alike.

He turned to Twitter to have his followers pick out his victory tie and he’s not afraid to use humour to take the air out of critics tires while using it to direct followers to different city campaigns and events.


These three leaders barely scratch the surface – symbiosis between online and traditional campaigns is vital to a politician’s ability to authentically communicate with the electorate and people they represent. There’s no doubt that billboards, signage and TV debates play a role but it’s also impossible to deny that the social media and online sphere is the new battlefield for politicians – that is, if they can integrate the two.