You and the Tube

Posted: Jan 13, 2007 12:00 AM
You and the Tube

YouTube is the hottest thing in American politics today. Just ask former Virginia Senator George Allen (emphasis on former). On the morning of August 15th, 2006 very few Americans had ever heard the quasi-word “macaca” before. By the end of the week, the word had come to encapsulate George Allen’s putative view of race relations in America, in an unflattering light, to be sure. All because Allen referred to one of his opponent’s staff members as “Macaca or whatever his name is,” and “Macaca” in turn uploaded the damning video onto YouTube. Allen’s campaign never recovered.

“Whether Republicans are ready for it or not, the website which will have the biggest impact on a candidate’s political life is YouTube,” says David All, a Republican modern media strategist in Washington, DC. “Candidates throughout the country are no longer squaring off against their opponents’ media firm, they also face their opponents’ tech-savvy, modern volunteer operation which is armed with cost-effective camcorders, free video editing software, high-speed internet connections, and a gnarly laptop to make the magic happen.”

But YouTube isn’t just a tool to play gotcha politics. Two presidential aspirants have recently used YouTube to say “I was wrong” to prospective supporters in the blogosphere.

Former Sen. John Edwards wants to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008. The only problem in that Edwards voted to authorize President Bush to invade Iraq. And that’s a no-no in Democratic politics. Just ask Sen. Joe Lieberman, another frequent guest star on YouTube’s political showcase.

So Team Edwards is only too happy to direct prospective supporters to this video on YouTube in which the former North Carolina Senator says, “I want to say something personal to all of you. … I voted for this war. I was wrong. I should not have voted for this war. I take responsibility for that.”

The liberal crowd (Edwards said this at a Ned Lamont rally) erupted in cheers at Edwards’s mea culpa and Edwards is today the early frontrunner among Iowa caucus-goers.

Perhaps hoping to emulate Edwards’s successful turnaround, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney this week took to the YouTube airwaves to admit he was wrong for espousing liberal positions on social issues in his 1994 campaign for U.S. Senate against Sen. Ted Kennedy.

With impressive rapid response timing, the Romney camp YouTubed a video of Romney taking part in an interview on the popular Glenn and Helen Show Podcast saying, “Of course, I was wrong on some issues back then. I’m not embarrassed to admit that.”

The Romney mea culpa was itself a response to a video that appeared on YouTube just one day prior showing clips of Mitt Romney trumpeting, with apparent conviction, political positions that are not at all in line with those of typical Republican primary voters.

David All was impressed. “Yogi Berra used to say ‘You can observe a lot by just watching.’ It’s clear to me that Team Romney learned a lot by watching what happened to former Senator George Allen’s ineffective response to the macaca YouTube clip, and has yielded their communications team enough leverage to assess the situation and respond promptly and appropriately using the same medium,” he told me.

YouTube isn’t just for political bickering and banter. Smart corporations recognize the power of web-based video-on-demand, too. Coffee giant Starbucks found itself the subject of a YouTubing in mid-December when Oxfam America posted video of protesters demonstrating outside Starbucks locations. The protesters said they were standing up for “Ethiopian coffee farmers’ rights.”

Two days later Dub Hay, the head of the Starbucks Coffee Team took to YouTube to explain why Ethiopian coffee farmers make so little money. It’s a fairly esoteric answer that has more to do with trade agreements than corporate greed, but the point is, Starbucks didn’t just sit around and ignore the bad press. It responded swiftly and in kind. And, frankly, Starbucks looked more reasonable than its detractors because of it.

Nevertheless, we New Media-minded, crisis-management oriented politicos (and I definitely included myself in that we) may be getting a little too nerdy about the new communications opportunities presented to us by YouTube. As of this writing, roughly 5,500 people had watched the Romney rebuttal video. During roughly the same period of time, 1.3 million people watched a video from Dove Soap promoting its make-your-own-commercial contest.

(Disclosure: I am a consultant to Sen. John McCain, who may be a candidate for president in the future.)