First Presidential Debate Tech Roundup

Juan González's picture


First Presidential Debate Tech Roundup

Tonight, Americans tuned in to their favorite broadcasting channels to listen to President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney debate, bearing witness to two very different styles of oratory and rhetoric. Similarly, behind the scenes and across social media, the two campaigns, their surrogates and allies, and the traditional media and advocacy organizations, all waged a public relations engagement campaign that reflected two distinctive styles. Who had the most effective messages across digital channels? What approaches were used and what was their impact? In this blog post, we examine and rate the engagement strategies and outreach tactics that the major players used.


In the hours and days ahead of the debate, organizations had an opportunity to frame the context of the conversation -- and over social media, this means setting up the terms of engagement with audiences. Leading up to the debate, both Facebook and Twitter set up official conversational channels to centralize user conversations, but it was surprising that both of these channels went largely ignored by the campaigns and even by media, which instead used a combination of their own channels and hashtags. In order to be effective, organizations that want to have a successful engagement over social media should offer guidance and sharable content to users in advance of an event. So, what ended up happening in the minutes before the big game?

The Campaigns

OBAMA 2012 - (Good) - The Obama Campaign made use of to deploy highly sharable content, such as an iconic "I've got his back!" image, demonstrating their strong understanding of social media's primary function: spreading content and extending an organization's digital footprint across the aggregate personal networks of all the individuals sharing it. Additionally, the Obama Campaign deployed peer groups, like @Students4Obama, for live-tweeting the debate itself, focusing on encouraging follows and re-shares of surrogates rather than the primary campaign channels.

ROMNEY 2012 - (Mixed) - The Romney Campaign made use of @MittRomney to plug campaign-specific issues and engage in light banter and re-tweets, but didn't offer much in the way of preparatory advice for its legions of followers. Furthermore, it utterly abandoned Facebook entirely and gave up an opportunity to provide sharable content for users -- a catchy video, an intriguing photo could have made the difference in getting people engaged ahead of the debate. However, as we'll see during the debate, the Romney Campaign took a very different approach to engaging audiences than encouraging them to share content.

The Cable News Media

CNN - (Poor) - With only one tweet an hour ahead of the debate, @CNN started to make use of its own Twitter hashtag and eschewed the more popular mainstream tags for unclear purposes. It was clear that CNN was less interested in social media live-tweeting or engagement, and relied upon traditional media and post-debate analysis.

FOX NEWS - (Mixed) - On Twitter, @FoxNews' use of plugging its own tools, namely its live chat, combined with the effective use of mainstream (highly trafficked) hashtags, including the semi-official #debates, was highly active in promoting alternatives to using social media, but failed to offer easily sharable content in ways that would promote viral consequence.

MSNBC - (Mixed) - While @MSNBC didn't provide advanced instructions or encouragement for audiences to follow its content, it did offer some effective re-tweeting of anchors and other personalities designed to drive traffic to them. Like CNN, MSNBC yielded the social media fight, but unlike CNN it provided an alternative path for users to get access to its organizational leaders and spokespeople.


As the debates began, both campaigns launched sophisticated engagement plans that consisted of two very different models and theories of outreach.

The Campaigns

OBAMA 2012 - (Good) - The President's Re-Election Campaign began to publish sharable facts, building upon the preview of its strategy that we witnessed prior to the start of the debates. On Twitter, these facts were presented as absolute truths with no citations, making them quick and snippy, easy to re-tweet. The Campaign as making use of prepared remarks in a format that lends itself to the medium, again demonstrating their deep appreciation of the platform's native purpose: sharing, and not action.

ROMNEY 2012 - (Good) - Governor Romney deployed an aggregation widget across the web, essentially bringing together surrogates, friendly pundits, and select discussants over Twitter to live stream in an embeddable, easily-sharable webcast format. This strategy stands in stark contrast to the President's, where Romney was able to project coordinated messages that when issued by a speaker could echo across the follower networks of both their immediate followers as well as the followers of all other discussants and embedding websites. Rather than be forced to create content that would be shared upon that content's individual merit, the Romney Campaign rejected the native social media model altogether and packaged content by approved speakers in a wholesale sharable format.

The Cable News Media

CNN - Poor - Did CNN completely clock out of this event? Was their social media even being manned? During the campaign, there were a couple of tweets sent out an hour after the debate began, but CNN inexplicably made use of the #CNNDebates tag, which no one was really using.

FOX NEWS - Mixed - Fox News provided a few tweets of memorable comments, but spent some time just re-tweeting the thoughts of its main personalities, like Bret Baier. While some of its content was comical, and thus largely sharable, there was absolutely no real engagement of audiences.

MSNBC - Poor - MSNBC made no meaningful effort to man its Twitter channel during the debate, and thus did not directly engage with users until after the debates had finished, and then just began to parrot postings on its main website.

Key Moments

The Debate featured domestic topics, and there were several key policy discussions. It is interesting to note how advocacy organizations engaged with users over social media in ways that were far more sophisticated than traditional media, demonstrating a strategic gap between traditional and new media on the use of digital channels.

JOBS -- While the Obama Campaign failed to tweet out or share web addresses pertinent to some of the facts that the President had cited during the first 30 minutes of the debate (including one specific web address that could have been offered when the President said a plan could be found online), business and labor groups were making swift remarks. @SEIU deployed facts that could be used as ammunition against the opposition, while promoting them across popular anti-Romney hashtags and threads, while @AFLCIO promoted its web content in sharable links directly related to the topics being discussed, projecting its analysis across the web. This was moderately effective. Much more effective was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's approach, which on its Twitter account, @uschamber, directly engaged with users by asking specific, discrete questions, increasing the likelihood of meaningful responses, retweets, and shares by users.

OTHER ISSUES -- It was remarkable that neither the @AARP nor America's Health Insurance Plans, @AHIPCoverage, were active, especially when healthcare and entitlements were being discussed. But digitally savvy organizations, like think-tank Demos, made use of its Twitter account at @Demos_Org to raise issues and corresponding policy work that it has done that neither candidate appeared to be addressing, while increasing the chances that these tweets would be shared by using the mainstream #debates hashtag.


1. The Traditional Media did not leverage Social Media effectively.
The Cable News Networks, which have the largest and most profitable audiences on television for its broadcasts, failed to use social media during the debate for its intended purpose -- sharing content. Instead, the few networks that did participate instead tried to drive traffic by providing links to its content; the one bright spot in this effort was the retweeting of prominent personalities with their own committed networks of followers, which had the potential to distribute messages across decentralized circles.

2. The Campaigns took two starkly different approaches. While the Obama Campaign demonstrated its proficiency with social media by offering sharable content and creating assets that would encourage likes that could contribute to viral potential, the Romney Campaign instead deployed a consolidated widget meant for live broadcasts -- a live tweeting interactive tool that can be embedded on websites and that broadcasts the posts of its participants and of selected moderator speakers on Twitter. The Romney approach offers all of the benefits of controlled messaging while co-opting the sharable nature of social media in order to facilitate conversations by sharing every message sent across all of the followers of each individual's network.

3. Fact-checking the candidates rocked social media.
On both Twitter and Facebook, candidates, their surrogates, and advocacy organizations frantically engaged in fact-checking and presenting information to either support or refute the policy discussions being held during the debates. This proved a tremendous opportunity for organizations that publish work online - to extend their footprint during a critical moment when online audiences are paying attention to specific issues in massive numbers. Facts and fact-checking return social media to its roots - extending messages across digital footprints and increasing the likelihood that traffic will ultimately be driven to websites.

In the days and weeks to come, analysts will carefully review the effectiveness of the candidates during the debates. Reviewing the tactics employed in social media illustrate the engagement strategies and their impact during such a critical window. Stay tuned to our ongoing coverage of the online and digital campaigns for the candidates as they approach the next debates.

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