A visit with Webcameron in London

While in London, I went to the Conservative Party headquarters — new and sparkling white, with a view of the river just down from Parliament — to meet Sam Roake, who’s making his leader, David Cameron, a star of small TV. I wanted to hear his advice for the American candidates now dabbling in the TV of the people.

Roake is a personable, low-key, and smart chap in a suit with no tie, the uniform of our next leaders. He’s a veteran of Google AdWords. Yes, Google will take over the world. And then no one will wear ties.

2007, Roake says, is the year of video and social networking. He sees the two closely linked.

The web team — which so far is Roake and one colleague — have Cameron answer five questions a week from voters, three of them voted up by the public, Diggishly, and two he selects.

Then they have videos of him “out and about” anywhere in the world, talking to the camera with his thoughts and experiences. That happens about three times a week, but Roake said they’d do more with more resources — that is, one more staffer.

He says Cameron’s videos need little editing. Once they’re done, they go up on his site and on YouTube.

Roake argues that the videos enable their man to speak directly with voters and it helps them present their man in a candid, human way. “To be genuinely candid,” he says, “you have to talk about yourself as a person.” He says that to make this medium work, politicians have to switch “out of politician mode.”

The videos have been remixed and spoofed. But that hasn’t worked to the party’s disadvantage, Roake says. A labor MP made a parody of Cameron’s video and — I heard this tale from 18 Doughty Street‘s Iain Dale as well — it was so far off the mark (like a cringeworthy late-night skit), he had to apologize. The people from the show This is a Knife also made a parody called Blind Dave. And see the video by pioneer Parliamentary blogger Tom Watson tweaking Webcameron but wishing Labor had its equivalents:

Not having snit fits about all this apparently makes it look as if Conservatives have a sense of humor. They also want the videos to show that Conservatives are open and innovative. Roake says Labor isn’t doing this because they are “more focused on control.”

Roake acknowledges when I ask that it’s a bit different for the party in power. But then I ask whether they would continue their video strategy if they took power and he says they’d pretty much have to. “If it suddenly stopped, that would be seen as a very cynical move,” he says. The form would “evolve as the job evolves…. You can’t stop communicating.” This, Roake says, is a “new stage of politics” that is about a “sustained dialog with the public.” This was the kind of talk we heard from Gordon Brown about blogs at Davos. Once Brown ascends to power, I suspect they’ll be tripping over themselves to seem web-cool. As a head-of-state vlogger, Germany’s Angela Merkel already beat them all to the punch (though with a characteristic and militant lack of flair); she, too, is answering citizens’ questions online (here, auf Deutsch). Coming soon: Fireside vlogging. The White House Show with ___________.

But Roake emphasizes that vlogging isn’t the same as old TV though the American candidates are still treating it as if it were. They are broadcasting. The audience is different, he says, and the medium is different. His advice for our vlogging pols:

Don’t make the videos scripted and spun. Involve the voters: respond to them and address them by name. “See them as people who want to engage with you.” He says they need to be “personal, open, spontaneous.” Have someone with a camera along as much as possible to capture “off-the-cuff moments.” If you just have someone come 15 minutes a week to get one video, it won’t work. If you show events with lots of people, he says, balance that with more personal videos. Don’t sweat the production value.

Now, of course, it’s hard to believe that everything in politics isn’t always spun. Saying you’re not spinning is spin. But I take the point: don’t shrink-wrap the message and the candidate.

I ask why he thinks that the leaders in small TV in Europe tend to be conservative — Cameron, Sarkozy — while in the States, it’s the liberals who’ve taken the lead. Roake acknowledges that “a lot of it has to with being in opposition” and not immersed in the business of government (the podcasting, vlogging Merkel excepted). Then he spins just a bit: “The conservatives are less of a top-down government.”

Roake plans to help small TV spread in his party, getting more MPs to join the fun, joining a few leaders, including blogging Boris Johnson and vlogging Grant Shapps. He says that “any party serious about engaging in social media could do it.” And will.

(Crossposted from PrezVid)

  • http://brandseeksidea.blogspot.com Ian M.

    Another reason not mentioned by Roake in explaining why it is conservatives are leading the push for the web is that in much of Europe, especially the UK, the conservatives have had a deeper relevance issue with younger people and their values than perhaps in the US. The drive to the web is as much as driven by neceessity to be (appear?) modern and in touch with today’s values.

  • http://www.bloggerheads.com/ Tim Ireland

    Sam Roake can’t be blamed for wanting to cast his project in a positive light, but he needs to be pulled up on a few things here:

    1. Cameron’s early broadcasts were very much scripted affairs with a deliberate ‘candid’ setting:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3eZjS-ft7E

    2. The family setting was window dressing… and this is the core point Sion Simon was trying to make in the ‘offensive’ segment of his unfunny piss-take; Cameron had, in effect, prostituted his family. Simon was immediately set upon by a bunch of Tory activists and sock-puppets, who were outraged at his ‘personal attack’ one minute and banging on about his piggy eyes and floppy hair the next. (I’m not up on the latest interpond lingo… does this count as a ‘snit fit’?)

    3. Cameron’s web team actually used this good old-fashioned MSM-reliant faux-outrage attack to publicise Webcameron. So much for Web 2.0

    4. Sam Roake lists the rather benign This is a Knife parody (chosen no doubt for its PR value) and then ‘laughs it off’. The only other video responses he mentions are from two Labour MPs, Sion Simon and Tom Watson. From this small selection, one might be misled into thinking Webcameron has only been the victim of gentle joshing (on real television!) and party-political attacks.

    5. Declaration of interest: I produced Tom Watson’s website. And Boris Johnson’s.