They Come in the Name of Helping

poster1I spend every Monday with 11 European students and one from Sierra Leone as part of the Lantos/Capitol Hill Fellowship. Yesterday afternoon, we watched the documentary They Come in the Name of Helping and afterwards we had a lively discussion with its producer, Peter Brock.


Brock met now Lantos Fellow Joseph Kaifala (from Sierra Leone) at Skidmore College in United States. Kaifala and some of his friends from back home explain how they perceive aid workers and why aid is often wrongly implemented; Aid organizations lack understanding and knowledge of the culture and society they are operating within. Furthermore, Brock argues that donors give money out of pity instead of respect and humility.


PR and aid

This raised an interesting discussion about PR campaigns raising money for aid. Brock mentioned slogans as “Save Darfur” and “Save a Child” as examples where the message tailors the donors’ bad conscience and pity instead of respect for the African people. One of the Kaifalas in the documentary says: We are poor but we deserve dignity.


I do understand the critique of the campaigns – without having paid much professional attention to them. On the other hand, as a communications professional, I also have to say that PR does not work if the campaigns do not take the target audience’s self interest and motivation into consideration. And how much can one individual take in? The aid organizations are competing with each other and they are competing with other issues such as climate change, human rights, and homelessness in our backyard. Therefore, the PR campaigns have to cut through this clutter to be successful. Not to say that they cannot improve. I am sure they can!


Brock and Kaifala suggest that we should not only donate money to Africa but should become civically engaged in our local communities and fight local problems. I figure this should improve our respect and humility for other people – at home and abroad. This message might work in United States with a communitarian tradition. But I do not think it could work in a European setting – or at least in the Scandinavian countries. For instance, we do not have the same tradition for helping out in our communities. Another guest speaker to the group said that Americans cook a casserole as soon as there is minor problem. That is also my experience from living here. But that does not transcend to Europe – or at least my home country Denmark.


Please, watch poster_TheComeInTheNameOfHelpingthe documentary. It is thoughtful and it raises an important debate and call for more respect and humility in development aid which does make a lot of sense to me.


Creative Strategy

Let the left and right part of the brain connect and you get a creative strategy! This was the first message of Steven Kostant’s (Fleishman-Hillard) presentation Tuesday night to my capstone class at Georgetown University. Everyone needs a creative strategy to survive “the experience economy” and the highly disruptive world we live in.


But how do you do it? How do you create a creative strategy? It is all about the process. Kostant mentioned the art and joy of collaboration between people with different backgrounds, research, and brainstorm as essential parts of a (design or innovative) process. All of this is of course not surprising. But he offered advice about how to do it:


         uncover deep audience insights

         sometimes it is interesting to observe/analyze an audience who is not relevant at all to your product/policy

         focus groups are cheap but you cannot tell people what they need…..

         digital ethnography (observe your audience and put a video together or make a collage of pictures and watch it and use the knowledge in creating a strategy)


We also watched the old ABC Nightline show, The Deep Dive, about IDEO, the product design company in Palo Alto which among other things designed the first mouse for Apple.

I found a version of the show on YouTube. Watch it if you are about to design a process. To me it does not matter whether you are designing a shopping chart (as they do in this case) or a new communications strategy.




My take away:

         include people in your project group who does not necessary listen to you, but try out things and asks for forgiveness

         Set a deadline and drive accountability

         Be careful to bring in the devil’s advocate too early

Time for Blogging

I have broken one of the rules for blogging; I did not blog for three months. I wrote in an earlier post that you should blog whenever you have time. December, January, and February just passed by with Christmas, lots of guests from Denmark and Brussels, a sick kid, Inauguration, and a trip to the US Virgin Islands. I have also started my capstone project at Georgetown University.  And I am the program coordinator of the Lantos/Humanity In Action Capitol Hill Fellowship this semester which does take more time than I assumed – but it is great fun to be with 12 European law and journalism students.

I do not expect I will get more time – but now I will try to find time for blogging. I have missed blogging. Missed the conversation with peers from Georgetown, and it is a good way to reflect on what’s going on.


I wrote two pieces for the Danish communications magazine, Kommunikatøren in January. One story iss about my day on Inauguration. The other story is about corporate communication (or the lack of) during the financial and economic crisis. (Sorry they are both in Danish)


Technology, Economic Growth and Open Government

One of the great things about living in Washington DC is that you often get the chance to hear or meet important people of our time. Tuesday November 18, 2008, Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO talked at an event at the New America Foundation about what’s ahead on technology, economic growth and open government.


It was a pleasure for me to see the CEO of one of the icons of the tech industry. Eric Schmidt was passionate and knowledgeable, although he was not always structured in his way of presenting his points. However, I am still fascinated by the open source approach to technology and information which has been the driving force behind Google’s (and others’) success. And I share his fascination of the fact that lots of people have access to most of the information that is out there. And new technology (such as cell phones) will give even more people access to information – and more information will also be accessible in the coming years. What an opportunity for America –and for the rest of the world.


You can watch Eric Schmidt’s speech here.



Here’s a few of my notes and reflections from the meeting:


  • Communication in every ones hand is powerful. But we do not get it yet.
  • Openness: Anyone can play and that can drive the modern economy
  • That does not only apply to the tech industry, why not do the same with the energy sector?
  • Doesn’t matter how big you are, it is the service you offer that matter (remember the cartoon Nobody knows you are a dog)
  • Google products:
    • Flu Track (Check it, it is fascinating)
    • Book search
    • Future: a Google search can answer questions such as: what should I do this weekend?
  • Google’s Smart Energy Plan
    • Great initiative – for a company that praises innovation might come up with a new perspective.
    • I missed a point on who’s going to make the investment? And is the government the right decision-maker in this case? However, I am not sure the free market is either. Schmidt said we need balance between the market and the government. But how do we move on from here?
    • Not all the ideas are revolutionary such as adopting technologies and practices promoting energy efficiency for buildings, equipment, vehicles etc. But as long as it is not standard it does not matter. Just do it and give the citizens the incentives to invest in better solutions. (The Danish experience is that it works).
  • More public funding to education and research
  • Few political scandals this year
    • Because of “the policing of the internet” where everyone is tracking the truth
  • Better to have people with you than shot them out
  • Governments have not embraced the tools the citizens have such as blogs and YouTube.
  • Amazing that people are spending their free time when they get the chance to be involved.


Lessons Learned from Obama

Friday morning, I had the pleasure to speak to 25 political activists (Radikal Ungdom) from Denmark who had been campaigning in Florida for Obama. I asked them to share their campaign moments and I really enjoyed their stories from Florida – and a few from Danish campaigns. Furthermore, I learned a lot about campaigning in Denmark. (I have never participated in a political campaign. I have only observed campaigns and worked with politicians when they are in office.)


Here’s an excerpt of my notes on what we can learn from Obama´s use of social media:


Not for Everyone

Now every campaign or politician wants to copy Obama’s masterfully run campaign. All the tools are out there for everyone to use, but I don’t think they’re for everyone. Using the tools in a wrong way is much more damaging than not using them. I think it is one of the major lessons that we can learn from this election. For instance, Hillary Clinton used most of the tools – but she was not authentic (I will explore this more when I have time, please tell me if you have some links covering how to be authentic online/offline).


Take a look at @hillaryclinton on Twitter. Almost 6,000 are following her, but she does not follow anyone. 132,304 are following @BarackObama who’s following 127364. When I signed up to follow him, his campaign signed up immediately after to follow me. That’s a signal of interaction and conversation!


It’s Not Just About the Tools

Furthermore, Obama did not win just because he mastered Web 2.0. He mastered running a campaign integrating all kinds of campaign disciplines: messaging, polling, microtargeting, debating, stump speech, crisis management, media relations, digital communications (social media), and the ground game (GOTV). Most importantly, Obama’s message matched him as a messenger and inspired supporters. And don’t forget his formidable communications skills. Few politicians are as gifted as Obama.


Social Media Tools:

Here’s what we learn from Obama’s use of especially four social media tools:


Cell phone

Text messages are an intimate way for a campaign to mobilize supporters to register or vote. And they increase voter turnout in an effective way; A study from 2006 showed that text-message reminders helped increase turnout among younger voters by four percentage points. In a follow up survey, 59% of recipients reported that the reminder was helpful and only 23% who found it inconvenient. Furthermore, it is cheaper than canvassing and other offline activities.


Therefore, it is an effective tool to reach out to especially young voters under 30 because around 1/3 of this group only have cell phones.


Obama used cell phones as a tool in both the primaries and in the general election for mobilization (not fundraising). McCain text messaged his supporters once; the day before Election Day.



Two Types of Video

 2004: No YouTube


2006: George Allen lost his campaign for the Senate in Virginia (and couldn’t run as president) because of racial slur captured on a YouTube clip.


2008: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton announce their campaigns on YouTube:




1. Video by the Candidates

The Obama campaign strategically used its YouTube channel/campaign website and often used it instead of traditional media. For instance, the announcement of Obama’s VP came first on a text message telling supporters that they could watch on


  • Speeches
    • Obama’s race speech in Philadelphia in March is among the most viewed clips on YouTube.
    • YouTube only count for those who have watched all of it.
    • As far as I can count from the various clips of the speech around 8 million people have watched this speech in its full length.
    • The speech is 38 minutes long
    • YouTube is not killing the sound bite but it is giving campaigns/politicians a tool where they can explain complicated ideas – as Obama did here.
  • Causal videos
    • Behind the scene – which reporters do not necessarily get access to
    • Campaign Manager David Plouffe’s up dates on video included in emails to supporters. See for example:


2. User-generated video


Vote Different



Yes We Can


Social Networking

The goal of social networking in a campaign is to mobilize supporters/voters to take action offline (call, organize, register, vote). The Obama campaign used its campaign site website to spread the message of the campaign and gave its supporters a lot of tools that they could use offline.


For instance, a supporter could download a phone list and call from home. Of course the opponent can use the same list, but the benefits of opening up exceed the costs. It is easy to make a few calls from wherever you are, and a supporter doesn’t have to go to the campaign office and take up space!


Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace are an effective way to spread the message among already established networks or friends. Studies (see for example Applebee’s America or Influentials) show that we are more likely to trust a friend of ours than a political expert on TV.


Social networking sites have also been a tool to collect cell phone numbers and emails. Furthermore, when supporters have registered on they give the campaign demographic data and contact information which are important as part of customer relationship management (please see end note). The campaign can email or text message directly with personal messages to the individual supporter when and where it is necessary. 




It is hard to completely separate social networking from fundraising and the field organization. Social networking is only one element of fundraising and field organization, but it is the integration of those “disciplines” that are amazing and groundbreaking about Obama’s campaign.


However, Obama’s fundraising effort aided his victory on Election Night. According to OpenSecrets,his campaign relied on bigger donors and smaller donors nearly equally, pulling in successive donations mostly over the Internet.” Obama also rejected public financing when he entered the general election.


Traditionally, fundraising has been aimed at around 50,000 wealthy American donating a maximum of $4,600 to the primaries and general election. The Obama campaign has not, yet, released all its numbers, so we do not know exactly how many donated online. Garrett Graff has estimated that 3,5 – 5 million people have.


From this perspective Obama does not owe special interest anything. (However, the unions might feel he does). 


Obama has built on Howard Dean’s fundraising success in 2004 allowing small donations online. The campaign has wisely integrated a “donate” bottom in emails and on the campaign website so it is hard to miss.


(Garrett Graff inspired me in working on this notes. Met him briefly the day after the election and of course my notes from his classes in the spring and summer helped me as well. Paul Johnson and George Thompson, my current professors in Political Campaign Communication, will also recognize a few of their points. I have retrieved the notion of costumer relations management from Mette Bom´s and Birgitte Raben´s article in the Danish magazine Mandag Morgen medier vinder præsidentvalget”about Obama´s social media strategy. Unfortuantely, I cannot link to it).


My Projection


In our latest class in Political Campaign Communications we talked too much about GOTV and Wardrobe-gate that we never had the chance to come up with our personal projections of the election. I will give it a try!


From everything I have learned in this class and in this program in general about PR, campaigning and communication I project that Obama will win. I do so because Obama has a clear and inspiring message, built an effective and impressive field organization, harnessed digital media, and handled crises and attacks effectively. I don’t think it will be a landslide. It will be close. And Obama supporters and Democrats will be nail biting all election day long (I will too).


In spite of this impressive campaign, I am just like Mitchell Bard on Huffington Post not fully convinced about an Obama victory yet. Nate Silver at gives Obama a 96.7 percent chance of winning. I am quite comfortable with Silver’s work but as Dee Alsop said in the beginning of our semester: “polling is just polling”. The polls can be misleading because of terrible methodology; you have to look at the margin or error (5%), the quality of the questions, the interviewer’s role (missed anything?) and the sample.


Furthermore, voter turnout, race, and young voters are factors that we just don’t know for sure how they will affect the election. In other words:


  • Will Obama’s impressive GOTV and field organization make the difference?
  • Will or will the Bradley effect not be relevant?
  • Will young voters turn out for Obama?  

We will see on Tuesday.

Swift Boating 2008

Just saw that American Issues Project (which Chris LaCivita is part of) might have dropped its Ayers attacks. Today they have launched a new ad attacking Congressional Democrats – not Obama. Why?


We have kind of waited for the campaigns to turn negative and play the dirty tricks of politics. In the last couple of weeks, both campaigns have turned more negative. And the McCain/Palin ticket does not benefit from it. The Times/CBS poll released yesterday suggests that “McCain is hurting his bid by using attacks”.


I am just wondering – why did the swift boating work in 2004, but it does not today? Is that because McCain and Palin themselves turned negative and did not leave it to surrogates such as the American Issues Project? Voters do not like to watch this? Or is it because of the financial crisis? Or is it because the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth touched something in Kerry’s character – just like the Macaca YouTube video did for George Allen in 2006? But the Ayers attacks do not really say something about Obama (for instance, Ayers and Obama are not close friends)?


Or did the McCain campaign lose the spin war on negative campaigning – as a spokesperson claimed on Morning Joe? The spokesperson (Wallace) said:

The truth is that Barack Obama has spent more money on negative attack ads against John McCain than any politician, Democrat or Republican, in history.”

I hope I get more time next week to answer these questions.