lessons from America

blogging as journalism or campaigning?

Congrats to those long listed for the Orwell prize for blogging. I put my writings on this blog up for award, but didn’t realistically expect to be chosen. But I was slightly disappointed by the blogs chosen. Not for their quality, but for the limited range. Quite a few of the long listed entries were blogs written by professional journalists and for their employers – Mark Easton of the BBC, Andrew Sparrow of Guardian Unlimited – or by professional political operatives – Iain Dale. There were relatively few selected written by amateurs or rather citizen journalists. There were few that were about reaching out beyond an already interested audience.

Blogs can serve many functions, be written by all types of people and for many purposes. And all are valid. But when it comes to ‘political’ blogs – and I take that in its wider sense – it is even more important that there are some people out there who are not just reaching out to the already converted or the already interested, but instead make political discussions and engagement accessible to a wider audience. And not just accessible – participatory, inclusive and serving a wider democratic ’good’.

That function can be served by journalists. It can be served by politicians and party political sites. But it also needs to be filled by ‘ordinary’ people who show their passions and interests and who it is easier to relate to. A more personal connection if you will.

A good blog – or any form of online communication – is not just about getting your piece on the news, or getting one over the opposition or being well known in the Westminster Village. There is an alternative, esp suited for the progressive sphere -community blogging. Learning the lessons from the Obama campaign may be a cliché, but this is one that isn’t getting picked up in the way I’d hoped. Spreading something “block-by-block”, or by word of mouth works precisely because you are speaking to people who know you (or have some connection with you) and a reason to trust or at least listen to you. So perhaps some of the most effect online political campaigning can be done by people setting up their own blogs or using their facebook or twitter accounts – which they already use to connect with their own family, friends and networks – to now communicate more political messages.

Approaches to online campaigning and social networks are another area which the political parties are struggling to get to grips with. Labourlist seems to take a very top-down, loyalist approach; and is serving the purpose of a mouthpiece for high level party views and debate. At first I thought John Prescott’s site was a similar beast, but feedback from friends suggests that – because of the personal nature of the site and John fronting it – it actually works as something more. As a campaigning site for Labour activists.

But what Labour has not yet got; what we on the progressive side of politics have not yet got is something which is not just a home for party activists and partisans, but is something more, a place where single issue campaigners and the mass of social justice activists can feel comfortable.

I write this on my way to Labour 2.0 ‘campaigning for the net generation’ conference. I suspect I will get both excited and frustrated in equal measure by today’s speeches and discussions, as some of the above is addressed and other aspects not.

February 28, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

We the People – Delia Paine

For the past month I have been proudly wearing an “I was there … Obama inauguration” button [badge] on my jacket. I’ve worn a variety of Obama buttons and hats since attending the Convention back last August. That action encapsulates possibly the number one lesson from the US elections and the Obama campaign I have taken away with me: the importance of “visibility”.

During a campaign in the UK, it is possible to go through whole constituencies and see barely a sign that an election is going on. Not in America, or at least not this time. Posters, banners, yard-signs, bumper stickers, people holding up placards by the side of the road, clothing – so many ways that showed (i) an election was happening (ii) the result / politics mattered (iii) people wanted to be identified supporting a particular candidate or party … and spread those messages to others in the neighbourhood.

Wearing a campaign button is one of the cheapest, easiest and most effective ways to be ‘visible’. Without any further effort, your message is seen by whoever you pass by on the street, sit opposite on public transport, or have a conversation with. But more than that – as I know from my experiences in the US and when wearing Obama buttons here – it can be a great conversation-starter, and way of getting strangers, or friends, interacting about something political. And what may start as purely an act of showing your identity, or seemingly doing the bare minimum to support a cause, can actually be the first step along a path to greater activism. The more you share your story (whether to other supporters or to those that question your affiliation), often the stronger that connection gets; and the more likely you are to meet and feel motivated to join with other campaigners.

What does all this have to do with the ‘We the People’ inaugural ball you may ask? Well, there that evening I met someone who absolutely epitomises the spirit and the power of visibility, and have been raving about her – and her work – ever since. Step forward, Delia Paine – aka “the button woman”, aka ViaDelia.


When I met Delia she was standing by a long table full of brightly-coloured and shiny buttons emblazoned with the words “Hope Wins”, “Yes We Did”, “44th President, Barack Obama”, or simply “Obama”. Here on display and very much on sale to the queues of inquistive and excited ball-goers was her artwork; her creations. These were no ordinary Obama buttons. Each one was handmade, from a variety of decorative paper, foils and other materials. Special and unique and great mementos, definitely. But there was something more; and as we talked and I learnt about the story of the buttons, the journey – both geographic and political – that the buttons had taken her on, unfolded.

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Delia is an artist based in Bend, Oregon, and had been making and selling arts and crafts for many years. She did commissions – for one-off events or personal celebrations, nothing political – and made buttons promoting her local community. Then in summer 2008 she was approached by some local Obama campaigners who asked if she could use the same technique for producing some buttons in support of Obama. A few were made and they proved extremely popular … and so production continued and quickly increased. More and more people were seeing their neighbours or fellow activists wearing them, and wanting their own. Soon the buttons were the top-selling item at the local Democratic campaign HQ. And the buttons served a dual purpose, for they proved to be a great fundraising tool for the party too. Word spread and Obama and Democratic campaign offices across the States of Oregan, Washington and California wanted to be part of it and bought thousands of buttons to sell on to supporters. Together these offices raised over $20,000 simply from the sale of Delia’s buttons between August and November.

Even before the buttons had gone region-wide, Delia spotted an opportunity to show her artwork to a larger audience. She took 1000 Obama buttons to Denver, to the Democratic Convention. Because this was very much a last-minute decision, all the proper pitches and stalls on the 16th Street Mall had been taken already. But she set herself up in a tiny spot anyway and sure enough people did find her. And so did the media. In 4 days she sold $10,000 worth of buttons; and all the media attention, word of mouth by delegates and of course sightings on people’s clothes (including the likes of Speaker Nancy Pelosi) brought orders for thousands more buttons.

And so what started out as one extra design amongst the many she did, suddenly became Delia’s full-time occupation. And not just til November. There was no drop-off after the election victory as she’d initially expected, because demand for her special celebratory editions far exceeded anything she imagined. And so – to further take advantage of this continued demand – she decided to up sticks with her family and move for the month of January from Oregon to Washington DC, and rent a shop in Union Station selling her whole range of Obama buttons, magnets and key chains. One of the organisers of the ‘We the People Gala’ spotted her shop and was so impressed that they invited her along to the ball to showcase her work there. And that’s how I came to be talking to Delia.


The story of the buttons is inspiring enough. And they are beautiful works of art. I have proudly worn one of the ones I bought from her not just at political meetings but at more formal social events over the past month. My colleague Lewis spotted a woman on a bus in London wearing one and they had a good conversation about the inauguration and Delia’s artwork. My snowman even sported a Delia button.

Yet what really made my encounter so special and affirming wasn’t the buttons, but Delia herself. She is skilled and creative not only in her art, but in marketing it; and does so in a very engaging and personable way. As we talked, it became clear that her passion for selling her merchandise was more than that of a salesperson. She believed in the Obama campaign and was happy to be doing something to support it. Yet this was the same woman who had already told me she wasn’t political and had never been so. In fact it had taken her 3 weeks after producing the first Obama buttons to feel comfortable in actually modelling one herself and longer to wear it often in public. Something had happened to her, even without her really noticing it … she had become politicised.

This transformation become complete to me – though I had to point it out and encourage her to recognise it in herself – in her response to my favourite question: “what’s next?”. Delia said that many people had approached her with particular commissions and she was now asking herself “can I sell this and still feel good about it? If I can’t, then the answer is no”. That to me is an awesome example of someone become more politically conscious and active. And as if to prove it, the commission she accepted and designs she has been selling since then are in support of marriage equality and the protection of gay rights – as part of the campaigning and solidarity activity going on in the wake of the yes vote to California’s Proposition 8 banning gay weddings.

The story of Delia and her buttons underlines how elections and campaigning needn’t be a dull, monotone business; and that being visible (in this case through making or wearing a button) can be a powerful and effective campaign tool and a change agent. And that latter bit gets to the very heart of why I care about politics and getting more people involved in the democratic process.

NB. There are more photos of the Obama buttons on Delia’s website, and you can buy a selection of her buttons via her online shop.

February 20, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

OFA 2.0 – the future?

One answer to the question “what’s next?” for all the activists and grassroots networks of the Obama election campaign has just had its first outing. Across the US last weekend several thousand “stimulus parties” were held. These were structured but self-organised events aimed not just at selling the Obama stimulus package but educating, getting constructive feedback, letting people feel they were taking some ownership of the package and the process, and encouraging them to come up with elements they could advocate or take action on.

Welcome to the world of ‘Organizing for America’ – the Democrat party and Obama’s bold, ground-breaking and potentially hugely politically significant new project. 538’s Sean gives a brilliant first-hand account of what one of these events in Bowie, Maryland was like. Of course not all the stimulus parties were as well attended or productive as that one, and the media has quite happily picked up on some of the less successful cases. And it will be interesting to see how much of the talk then gets translated into action(s). But as a first-try of a model for popular engagement in policy and sustaining grassroots activism, it has a lot going for it. And the word is resources and field staff are going to be committed to it in near 50 states, so there’s definitely more to come. Plus as long as you have passionate people – the like of which Sean interviewed and are quoted below – involved, I am going to be following what happens.

“We’re vested in the campaign, it’s not just something where we’re just bystanders. We’ve put sweat equity in bringing this campaign to fruition. The real campaign started on November 4… A lot of us here have paid so much into it and we want to see the rewards are reaped.” (Curtis Valentine)

“I just want to stay involved, I just want to get as much information as I can. I just want to stay plugged in.” (Ophelia Vanderpool)

“I want to get good information, be an activist, continue to have Barack’s back.” (Vanessa Davis)

“I was fired up then and I’m fired up now. My whole goal here is one of hope, and a trust that we can continue the momentum that we started.” (Toni Byrd)

February 10, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

We the People – James Smith

After the meal at the We the People inaugural gala, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to do a sit-down interview with one of the nicest guys I met all week – James Smith. Lucky in another way as well, as it was by chance that the whole thing happened. He had originally approached me to take some photos of him and I’d half-jokingly said yes as long as I could do an interview. Not only did he agree, but he even came looking for me after dinner so I didn’t miss my moment. And he was also okay with having Meghan filming away too. The downside to that was that my note-taking wasn’t as meticulous as it should have been, and I will have to go back to the video footage to add in a few more details I didn’t scribble down. But here’s the main part of the profile:

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James Smith is from Bay City, Texas. He was a precinct captain, including during the primaries. Having been involved in it, he was a fan of the “Texas two-step” – the unique process of holding both a primary and a caucus to decide the state’s allocation of delegates to the Democrat Convention.

He was keen to get himself to Denver, for the Convention, and managed to get a pass to the Big Tent, just like me. We had some fun recounting our experiences there.

He erected an Obama banner outside his front porch. When Hurricane Ike struck [in Sept 2008], despite the devastation around, the banner was still standing. That was a powerful moment for him, a sign that he was doing the right thing.

He was involved in a Labor Action Committee and also in setting up a group for African-Americans too. He didn’t just campaign in Texas either. He hit the road and travelled to various other key states to lend a hand too.

One of the main political drivers in his life is his wife, Joyce Black. She is christian-minded, a community activist and seeking to get more involved in local politics. He was looking forward to devoting more energy to supporting her campaigns, as well as some of the local committees that he was involved in.

James was accompanied by Celeste Flye, his wife’s cousin. Celeste works in the real estate business in Las Vegas. She had been slightly less involved in campaigning for Obama, but even so it was interesting to hear the passion in her voice talking about it and in her determination to throw herself into making change at a local level. She had already found an issue that affected her community and that she wanted to make a difference to: proposed cuts in prison services and in rehabilitation programmes because of a state budget shortfall.

Again, Celeste had been brought into the political process and motivated by her cousin Joyce. I would have loved to have met this woman, as she sounds an amazing person and was often and affectionally referred to by both James and Celeste.

February 8, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

We the People – Latifah Ring

Rather belatedly, here are some of the stories of the inspiring activists I met at the We the People gala in DC on the evening of the Inauguration.


First up, is Latifah Ring. She was one the fifty-odd award winners at the gala, chosen one-per-state and given a free ticket based on their stand-out volunteering effort for Obama during the many months of the election campaign.

She’s a Texan, was selected as an Obama delegate to the Democrat Convention (here’s her bio and pitch she made to be a delegate), and like so many got involved in many different ways and roles. At some point during it all, as a way of increasing the visibility of the Obama campaign, she had the great idea of collecting election-related t-shirts and sewing them into a quilt. She proudly displayed her efforts at the ball.

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So many people were clamouring to see the quilt and ask her about it, that I didn’t have a chance to ask her more questions at the time, and didn’t manage to find her again amongst the dancing crowds later.

February 8, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Lessons from the Obama campaign – a branding specialist’s perspective

I’ve been to or taken part in a number of ‘lessons from America’ / ‘lessons for the UK from the Obama campaign’ type sessions over the past few months. Not all have yet produced any output. Here’s one I didn’t get to, but has reached some published conclusions, which a friend [thanks Danny] kindly circulated.

There are a few good points here, in amongst the obvious or more basic stuff. It is all solid advice for solid party political campaigners. There’s nothing really radical though; nothing that is going to shake up politics in the way the Obama campaign did in the US. Let me know what you think. I did my own version before Christmas and will post that up here shortly as a compare and contrast exercise.

Brand Democracy seminar, 20 January 2009

Six key things to learn from Obama’s campaign:

1. Understand who you can reach and what motivates them
2. Think politically. Consider your opposition in everything you do
3. Understand your vulnerabilities then deal with them
4. Use polling to find a message then stick with it
5. Make sure your communications make people feel included
6. Question the perceived wisdom

More detailed analysis:

1. Understand who you can reach and what motivates them
· Obama campaign: Obama played into the anti-business, anti-Washington feeling of the public
· Lessons learnt: Who is winnable and what are their attitudes/ priorities? Who is losable? Via polling
· Need to understand social change in society
· Campaign simulation polling

2. Think politically

· Obama campaign: Key to success was about creating a ‘change structure’. Obama beat Clinton but eliminating her as the ‘change agent’ eg making her seem as part of the Washington elite, no change from the past. It wasn’t a positive vision of the future but instead a contrast to the present.
· Lessons learnt: think competitively

3. Understand vulnerabilities and deal with them

· Obama campaign: Obama attacked on race (Rev Wright) and being unpatriotic/ disloyal to the US. He took these vulnerabilities head on (eg he didn’t pretend it didn’t happen) via his speech on race and ensuring all speeches/ photo ops behind a backdrop of a US flag.
· Lessons learnt: be alive to your vulnerabilities, understand how to counter these attacks and do so robustly, ensure you stick to your core message

4. Regularly poll

Obama campaign:

· Obama campaign regularly tested their messages before going public, eg polling found that more people felt that close ties to special interest groups was more concerning that incompetence. Therefore Obama ran with McCain being too close to oil rather than him/Bush being incompetent. Obama also polled people following McCain’s decision to put his campaign on hold over the economy – polling came back to say they thought Obama should carry on with the debate which is what he did.

· Lessons learnt: Use messages that run with the grain of society; learn fast and respond quickly

5. Inclusive communications

Obama campaign:

· Emails to volunteers – very personal in tone creating an emotional connection and making clear that
actions were part of a higher purpose. First names only used (eg Dear James; from Barack). Gave a
clear enabling tool on how people could get involved.
· Video – volunteers signed up to the campaign received a weekly email with a link to a video update
from someone in Obama’s campaign team. Resulted in volunteers feeling that were part of the
campaign/ had an inside track.
· Understood the need to involve people, not just ask for money.
· Got local campaign volunteers to talk and recruit other local people

Lessons learnt:
· Understand who you can activate for your campaign and the tools to do so
· Competitive messages can get people to get involved, eg our opponents on this issue will be writing
to their MP so it’s really important that we do to ensure our voice is heard
· Text messaging and video footage (via you tube) will be essential in getting your message out
· Automated phone calls in the UK don’t work

6. Question wisdom

· Lessons learnt: get out of the Westminster village – don’t rely on the perceived wisdom
· Positive message is more important than a negative message

February 5, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Snow-bama and other highlights of a wintry London

Meghan came round last Sunday to do a bit more filming: me surrounded by and showing off all my inauguration memorabilia and special newspaper editions, that kind of thing. If only she had stayed around a few hours longer, she would have been able to capture my homage to Obama in the snow. Or rather an over-excited big kid building a mini-me of a snowman and recreating in my back garden that moment of history on the Mall.



And to continue the American theme, for the first time ever I made a proper snow angel in my garden too:




And so finally to some sledging fun, in the communal gardens of the flats where my godson and his parents live, just around the corner from me. Admittedly it is more entertaining doing it than watching a grainy video of me. No candid camera / you’ve been framed here, it all thankfully ends happily.

February 5, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Voices from the african ball

At last, some of those much promised snapshots of people I met during inauguration week; starting with the African Inaugural Ball.

1) Jessica:


She is in her mid-20s – a demographic that was by-and-large missing from this particular event – and was of Sierra Leonan descent. She was here with her friend Marie (on the right). Jessica wasn’t involved in the campaign at all, nor was especially interested in politics and campaigning. But she was volunteering as a steward at the Inauguration. She wanted to be part of the event and the celebrations, and also do something that reflected her African heritage (and this ball was cheaper than most, which was an added incentive).

2) Julius Mucunguzi

He works as communications officer, including with responsibility for African affairs, at the Commonwealth Secretariat, London. He was in DC his job, but on a personal level was also very happy to be witnessing the inauguration events. He was interested in the effect Obama had and was going to have on how Africans see themselves. He hoped that they would gain confidence to hold their own leaders to account and bring about political change. He also thought Obama’s campaign might inspire more young people to become involved in politics, as long as the candidates gave them a similar level of attention and feeling of empowerment.

3) Edwin Okong’o


He was MC for the night, and also did a good line in stand-up comedy. His day job is communications director at New America Media – “the country’s first and largest national collaboration and advocate of 2000 ethnic news organizations; dedicated to bringing the voices of the marginalized – ethnic minorities, immigrants, young people, elderly – into the national discourse”. Or, as Edwin described it, “a Press Association for the ethnic press”. Amongst all the good things, he did express one note of caution to me: that the mainstream US media had focused a huge amount on Obama’s Kenyan ‘grandmother’, but had not broadened out their coverage much beyond that. So he was frustrated that there was little other showing Africa in a positive and non-stereotyped light, despite the opportunities.

4) Nelima

[with Edwin in the photo above] A fellow blogger, she writes for the Minnesota-based MinneAfrica, which covers all things African-related in that State. She was staying with her cousin, who lived in DC, and was very excited to be covering the week’s events. She had seen Obama speak at several rallies in the Twin Cities, and – like me – being at the inauguration was a chance to complete a journey.

5) Kristie and Julie


They were former PeaceCorps volunteers, who were now hoping that the America’s AIDS / HIV prevention programme (which they gave some credit to Bush for) would be able to expand at a greater pace. Together with their colleagues and fellow former volunteers around the table, they were at the ball to celebrate at an appropriate event for them. And they were looking forward to continuing their work campaigning on international health and development issues, now in a more sympathetic political climate.

February 1, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment