Reaching an eclectic electorate with social media

John Brannen
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In his book, “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,” Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan made the iconic statement that “the medium is the message,” meaning how a message is conveyed is influenced by how it is delivered. 

John Guthro sits at his basement office in New Glasgow while viewing local candidates’ social media sites. He believes that opt-in text messaging is the media of the future to reach out to young voters and those who carry their cellphones with them all the time. JOHN BRANNEN – THE NEWS

A modern election campaign, such as the current one in Nova Scotia, is a perfect example of numerous media used in different situations to deliver candidates’ and leaders’ messages. With the advent of social media, there are more channels than ever to get info, pictures, news and updates to the electorate.



In a Google-based online survey with 1,000 Canadians earlier this year, an estimated 56 per cent of adults were using a smartphone, up from 33 per cent in early 2012.

About eight in 10 smartphone owners said they don't leave home without their mobile device and two-thirds of them said they had used their phone every day in the past week.

Information like this was seized by John Guthro, owner of The iSite Store, in New Glasgow. Guthro, who has worked with clients in Canada and the U.S., helps businesses and individuals connect with people using SMS, or texting. Offering this service for local politicians in Pictou County was a no-brainer.

“It’s called opt-in text messaging,” he said. “Basically, the candidate may ask a person to opt in using his key word. At that point in time, that person’s cellphone shows up in a database and then the politician can communicate with that person later on.” 

According to Guthro, a politician using SMS technology can contact supporters directly to let them know about events or remind them to vote without the human capital needed to enter names and numbers into a database.

He approached all nine candidates in Pictou County from each party about the possibility of using opt-in text messaging technology. Of the nine, three responded and one, NDP candidate Ross Landry, is using the service in this election campaign. 

While it’s new to Pictou County, politicians in the U.S. have been using opt-in text messaging to connect with new and younger voters. President Obama and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin made use of the technology extensively during their campaigns.

Guthro said there’s no guarantee the service will win the election for a particular candidate, but with the potential to reach out to young voters, opt-in text messaging wouldn’t hurt.

“At best young people might appreciate the effort,” he said. “It’s the latest technology out there, but face to face contact is always the start.”



And while some things are changing, many have stayed the same. 

President and CEO of Advocate Printing Sean Murray believes printed products, such as signs and print media, are still the most effective ways to reach the Nova Scotia electorate. 

“As with most events and promotional campaigns, elections do for a short time increase the demand for direct, targeted and localized print products, he said. “Advocate is very pleased to work with many political parties and throughout ‎Atlantic Canada.”

While he couldn’t reveal how many signs and pamphlets Advocate is producing for candidates, he noted that the campaign train is more than just a moneymaker for printers.

“Elections should not be seen as economic drivers. Choosing leadership for our province is an important task, especially in today's competitive global environment.”

Similarly, Staples Canada has been busy assisting candidates with their election campaign needs. 

“Staples Canada assisted local party representatives with their copy needs during the 2009 elections,” said general manager Dana Landry. “Some of the copy and print services used at our print centres included brochures, pamphlets, poster printing, business cards, postage services and other materials for those running.”



For strategists at the political party headquarters in Halifax, the best approach is one that reaches people wherever they are.

Kyley Harris, director campaign communications for the Nova Scotia Liberal Party, said social media now accompanies door knocking and pamphlets.

“Twitter and Facebook are now standard tools in a candidate’s toolbox,” said Harris. “Our job is to help them promote the message and prevent any gaffes.”

The explosion of new media has permeated every aspect of communications. This marks the first election that the Liberals have a social media strategist. As early as four years ago, during the last election campaign in 2009, the position didn’t exist.

“It wasn’t that long ago that we used to fax press releases to media outlets,” he said. “It’s just not something we do anymore.”

Harris also pointed to some of the consequences of having a Blackberry or smart phone strapped to the hip 24/7.

“The era of the eight-hour work day is over. We sometimes get phone calls or emails at 11 p.m. that we have to address.”

Jill Marzetti, campaign director of the Nova Scotia NDP, noted that with all the changes taking place, nothing beats meeting with people face to face.

“Traditional campaigning is important and there’s still a huge volume of it in this campaign,” she said.

The two most important aspects to the campaign, according to Marzetti, are visibility and voter contacts. 

“You’ve got to have signs, pamphlets but you also have to knock on doors, listen to people and make phone calls.”

Facebook and Twitter have brought politicians close to the electorate, but it isn’t without its danger. The days of press releases being vetted, proofread and sent off are waning as candidates can tweet any off-the-cuff remark uncensored. 

“More participation is good and you can recruit volunteers,” she noted, “but you have to watch tone and discourage childish behaviour.”



NDP candidate Charlie Parker has been MLA of Pictou West since 2003 and briefly in 1998. He’s witnessed many changes in how to communicate with the electorate over the years.

“Technology keeps things challenging,” Parker conceded. “For me personally, out on the doorsteps is the best way to do it. Sometimes the old fashioned ways are best.”

On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn  









Jamie Baillie




Karla MacFarlane




Tim Houston






Darrell Dexter




Charlie Parker




Ross Landry






Stephen McNeil




Glennie Langille




Francois Rochon




Bill Muirhead


Organizations: Staples Canada, Nova Scotia Liberal Party

Geographic location: Nova Scotia, Pictou County, Atlantic Canada U.S. New Glasgow Halifax DIE HARD Pictou West

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