Municipal Election 2010

Civic Engagement and Social Media

A campaign backed by a solid platform and promoted through effective use of social media to communicate directly with voters can confirm public support and inspire new voters to the polls.

By Jason Allen
Published October 19, 2010

For the last three weeks, my Facebook page has been an ever-increasing site for electoral politics. Yes, there was the expected level of activity from Hamilton, with candidates newly discovering the power of social media, but most of the activity was from Calgary.

In my hometown, the guy who convinced me to run for Student Government 20 years ago or so was a childhood friend named Naheed Nenshi. He was the Students' Union president the year before me, and encouraged me to run to succeed him, which I did (and won).

Fast forward to 2010's municipal election. In the meantime, Naheed has gone to Harvard, worked for Mckinsey, sat on major boards, become a University professor, and authored a long-running Calgary Herald column on urban issues. After much soul searching (including some unsolicited advice from myself and my wife), he decides to run.

But his campaign was a little different. It started with a policy announcement: Better Idea #1. A concrete, easy to understand policy about nonconforming secondary suites that tackled Calgary's horrendous homeless problem head-on. Naheed was polling around 4% at this point, and was not considered a serious contender against Ric MacIver (read: Rob Ford) and Barb Higgins, a former CTV evening news anchor.

Then the most remarkable thing happened. Naheed started tweeting actively (as he had done for years) and working his Facebook contacts. He started addressing people directly through a series of engaging, and even humorous YouTube videos. He created a regular podcast, and even had an iPhone app built for him.

Naheed started spreading his message through online media, and little town halls in local pubs, and every venue he could find. The source of his power has been a one-two punch of considerable media savvy (especially social media) and a message worth spreading. Combine this with an incredible work ethic, and the die seemed to have been cast.

Better Idea #1 led to #2, then #3, than all the way to #12. Suddenly Naheed was the candidate with the most comprehensive, well thought-out, and explicit platform on the campaign trail. All the while he hammered away at Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, bringing an engaged, rowdy, and generally young crowd of supporters with him (all wearing the trademark purple shirts) at every civic event.

Finally, he refused to take corporate or union (not that there are many of those in Alberta) donations, announcing that he would be making his entire donor list public prior to the election.

It was truly a campaign by the people, for the people.

In a matter of two weeks his polling numbers went from 8% to the low 30s, and the Calgary Mayoralty campaign became a three-way statistical dead heat. People were posting rap videos and folk songs about his campaign on YouTube, and Naheed had the momentum.

The nail in the coffin for his competitors was the Calgary Sun endorsement a few days prior to voting day, and a sleepy little two-way race between a celebrity and "Dr. No" was looking more like a rout for a so-called "third tier candidate.".

If you opened a national newspaper on Tuesday morning you know the outcome. Naheed is the first Muslim mayor-elect of Calgary (although he made almost no mention of his heritage during the campaign), and that city's transformation from "Cowtown" to cosmopolitan city of urban renewal may just be underway.

Lessons for Hamilton Candidates

So what could Hamilton candidates learn from this? According to a recent poll, Mr. Bratina is leading slightly in what is otherwise our own statistical dead heat (or pretty close to it).

What is remarkable is the number of undecided voters. Over a quarter of the electorate have failed to be engaged significantly by any one candidate. Even though the Mayor's chair in Hamilton is arguably up for grabs, two things are missing from all three of the candidates' efforts:

  1. A solid, inspiring, achievable platform that is rich with ideas and ways of bringing them to life, and
  2. Really effective use of modern tools for communicating those ideas.

(The third thing Naheed exhibited is work ethic, and frankly I don't know enough about the three campaigns to comment. My remarks are mainly directed towards the first two issues.)

Several candidates for mayor (including the front runners) have one of the two. I would argue that Mayor Fred has some pretty good ideas. He has just done a lousy job communicating them, and has almost totally dropped the ball on the social media front. While he makes use of social media, he uses it as broadcast tool.

Naheed's strength with SM was that he understood it thoroughly, and used it to engage Calgarians in a conversation about what they wanted from their city, one person at a time, in a very public way.

In essence, Naheed's door was always open, almost 24 hours a day for discussions, debate, and feedback. Fred has failed to do this, as evidenced by the numerous comments and questions I have made/posed to him on both Facebook and Twitter, only to be met with the sound of crickets.

Mr. Dianni has done a great job of communicating his ideas with his sizeable war-chest, and frequent media coverage, it's just that those ideas don't seem to be resonating with Hamiltonians. That and he (as have all three front-runners) has been remarkably short on details as to how he intends to get there.

The other problem with Di Ianni's ad/traditional media campaign is that it only engages people who have traditionally voted.

A quick browse of the comments on Naheed's facebook page reveal dozens and dozens of Calgarians who had never voted, or at least hadn't done so in years, who were now engaged in the process of not only choosing a leader, but of making their city better. Those people (judging from their FB photos) are for the most part young, social media savvy, and absolutely open to the kind of weak tie activity that Facebook and Twitter encourage so well...activities like voting.

And finally there's Mr. Bratina, who seems to be relying on name recognition and has a platform that is so short on details nobody is sure what he stands for. Looking at the relative age of the survey respondents, it's no wonder Bratina is ahead in the poll. He has instant name recognition with the older 'AM radio listener' demographic...a demographic which is also extremely reliable come voting day.

Solution: Differentiate

This solution is simple for candidates who want to differentiate themselves. Start making effective use of social media to communicate your ideas, and start having some ideas to communicate. Ideas, as I said, that are solid, inspiring and achievable. Then use social media in the way it has evolved into: not a broadcast tool, but a tool for public debate one-on-one, with a demographic you couldn't really reach otherwise.

None of this is rocket surgery, but it would be the quickest way of absorbing some of that giant block of voters who are undecided because they don't really know what they are choosing between. It also might be a way (as it was in Calgary) of bringing nearly double the amount of people to the polls than in the previous election - many of whom had never been inspired by civic politics before.

Then once you get them to the polls, if you're lucky you'll have the equivalent of Naheed's Purple Army to help you carry the public debate you need to get your platform put into place.

The question is, who is up to the task, and is there enough time left?

Jason Allen is a chronic hive whacker in the Kirkendall Neighbourhood.


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By Centrist (registered) | Posted October 19, 2010 at 23:36:12

And just think: Toronto might elect Rob Ford.

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By Keith Mann (registered) - website | Posted October 20, 2010 at 09:19:18

The article makes this point, but it's worth stressing: the good idea comes first. Communicating brilliantly is pointless unless you have something worth communicating; better, in fact, to remain silent.

Sadly, Hamilton seems to be lacking anyone with Naheed Nenshi's formidable combination of good ideas and knowledge of how to communicate them (although I suspect his particular charisma and impressive resume didn't hurt his campaign, either). Even if we aren't, to answer the author's question, no, I don't think there's enough time before the election. Maybe next time.

Comment edited by Keith Mann on 2010-10-20 08:21:19

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By BeulahAve (registered) | Posted October 20, 2010 at 10:08:18

Great article, Jason. What happened in Calgary is really exciting, and thanks for sharing your personal connection. So the medium is not the message after all.... Canadians seem to love Ivy League (especially Harvard) grads who come back to live in Canada. Too bad we don't have any of them in Hamilton.

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By The Pink Dolphin (anonymous) | Posted October 20, 2010 at 21:34:38

Foe those interested in an eight you olds view of civic engagement, you might be interested in his book The Pink Dolphin. I am the Small City Mayor who received this timely advice about collaboration.

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By IAMM (anonymous) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 08:46:14

Oh, I see! There are only 3 Candidates for Mayor in Hamilton.
Social Media, fooey!

Thanks for nothing Jason, same old Candidates and same old Media!

Michael Baldasaro for Mayor "Don't you know?"

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By Andrea (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 09:54:35

An interesting point was addressed at last evening's all candidate'e meeting (Ward 3) - voters in the poorest neighbourhoods don't always have access to internet. The suggestion was raised for the candidates to provide contact information other than a website or email was met with a VERY enthusiastic round of applause.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted October 21, 2010 at 10:40:25

An interesting point was addressed at last evening's all candidate'e meeting (Ward 3) - voters in the poorest neighbourhoods don't always have access to internet. The suggestion was raised for the candidates to provide contact information other than a website or email was met with a VERY enthusiastic round of applause.


IT is important to find ways to engage everyone, to provide access to everyone.

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