Naheed Nenshi: Politician 2.0

Naheed Nenshi is being hailed as a breath of fresh air across the country and around the world this week. The new Mayor of Calgary went from 8 percent popular support to more than 40 percent and an election victory in a matter of four weeks.

The meteoric rise in popularity has the words Twitter, Facebook and Social Media on the lips of every vintage journalist trying to explain the victory – but they’re missing the point. Those tools were vital in Nenshi’s victory, but when you measure the number of people of following him on Facebook – just over 10 000 – you can’t make it equal the more than 140 000 votes he took in without doing some fuzzy math.

People have long been trying to find a way to calculate the ROI on social media. Impressions and clicks are easy to count – but how do you translate a social media effort into votes at the ballot box? Social media was best used by the NDP in the 2008 Federal Election – but that didn’t turn into victory.

I’ve argued you calculate the social media effect one person at a time. By engaging in Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other web utilities, you are trying to influence the influencers. You are trying to inspire the inspirers. The people active in social media are the leaders of tribes, by affecting them, you’re affecting the people most likely to tell two friends and so on.

Many politicians stick to door knocking and auto dialing to get their message out. In an era of “No Solicitor” signs on doors and “Do Not Call Lists” to avoid unwanted phone spam, these two old school methods are seen as intrusions. By going online, you’re counting on mouse clicks instead of door knocks.

Nenshi has said the online campaign was meant to engage an audience “where they live.” But it was more than that. With civic politics debates left to daily policy discussions and forums hosted by various special interest groups, the chance to get solutions to the problems before the entire electorate is difficult. There was no televised debate in the Calgary election, no chance to go toe to toe with the front running candidates.

Ric McIver and Barb Higgins chose to focus their campaigns on the traditional method of using adjectives and soundbites to get their message across.
McIver leaned on his “conservative” reputation and experience on city council. “I know the value of a dollar,” was an opening campaign statement from Higgins.

Both can’t be faulted for doing things the way things had always been done. That was old school, backroom politics. They were surrounded by cronies who had worked successful campaigns in the past and just expected the same magic potion to work in 2010.

But Nenshi was an outsider. He didnt lean on the traditional way of doing things because he came from a place that didn’t know how to do things the traditional way.

He took to YouTube with his Better Ideas platform. The web offered him free and limitless airtime. He could identify problems and outline solutions in a time frame that might have been inconvenient for the evening news or too long for a radio commercial, but reasonable enough for the electorate to understand.

By using the web to explain his policies, the city’s problems and his solutions, he empowered his audience to evangelize his message. It was the most basic of social media rules: be authentic.

While Higgins was counting on her brand name heritage and smooth ability to read from a script and McIver was leaning on his 9 years in the system and the expectation that he was next in line based on seniority, Nenshi talked issues.

Social media is getting all the love from those who were outside the campaign machine, but that wasn’t the real reason for Nenshi’s win. Higgins and McIver had social media campaigns too. They bought Facebook ads, tweeted campaign events and had messages on websites.

Had they read this entry from 2 years ago, they would have realized that just showing up in social media is not enough – you have to play the game, you have to be authentic.

David Brodie, a former advisor to Paul Martin, sums up the current efforts with one word.

“Weak,” he wrote in a chat conducted via Twitter. “All could learn from Gordon Brown and Obama. Should [be] engaging users rather than pushing out their msg with new tools.” [source]

Honestly, if a 52 year old political veteran or 48 year old news anchor had suddenly been engaging via Facebook and Twitter it would have been off. They didn’t have the personality and savvy to make it work. Nenshi’s social media campaign was authentic and engaging because he was authentic and engaging. Social media is not a switch you flip to start a campaign, it’s a history of good will built up with followers and your audience that puts you ahead.

Nenshi took the social media tools and used them in the way they were designed: to create and foster and expand an interactive conversation. He was open, he was accessible, he was authentic.

Scott Bourne, a photography blogger, likes to joke about how people ask him what camera he uses to take his pictures. He jokes because the tool is not what makes the artist – it is the artist’s skill. He often smugly answers with “I got the camera at the same place Shakespeare got his pens.”

We often think by buying the clubs Tiger uses, we’ll be able to bomb it 300 yards. We’re lured into thinking just because wear Nike shoes we can fly like Jordan. We think that just because we have a website and the right icons on a campaign poster, we’re engaging in social media.

It’s not the size of the stick that matters, it’s how you wield it.



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  1. October 22, 2010

    Buzz, this is such a brilliantly written post.

    It is so true, I fully believe, Nenshi inspired the younger generation to vote via Social Media, he created conversation and connection. Isn’t the 53% turn out rate enough to prove that.

    It really is about meeting people where they are at. You have so eloquently and directly written about the impact of ENGAGING others, and it truly is about being Authentic defines Authenticity as: Genuineness; the quality of being genuine or not corrupted from the original.

    When I show up in authenticity, I have the power to inspire, empower and motivate others to do the same.. not just on Social Media in LIFE!!

    Thanks Buzz

  2. October 22, 2010

    Thanks Lee. Hopefully this changes the way politics and campaigns will work in the future. Intelligent and accessible policy should win over name calling and soundbites every single time.

  3. October 22, 2010

    Buzz, you are 100% right. Great analysis.

    Those of us who worked on the campaign (there were hundreds who helped out) know that social media created the ripples with these influencers who talked to their friends and family, and so on, and so on, etc. Naheed and his team then attended every single forum, school, farmers market, coffee party, community hall, etc. that they could fit into an 18-hour day.

    Two things that really stand out for me from these last months:

    1) the campaign platform vision was so clear, solid, and practical that volunteers could help without asking for permission to do or say things … we felt empowered

    2) the number of older people who have told me that their whole family researched all the candidates and decided on Naheed. The heart of the campaign was helping people to have meaningful face-to-face conversations about the present and future of their city. This election was won face-to-face, heart-to-heart and neighbour-to-neighbour.

    The city has come alive in a way that many Calgarians will remember from major sporting events like the Olympics and Stanley Cup runs. Politicians need to realize that people are hungry for something to believe in that is bigger than themselves. Naheed delivered that with authenticity and purpose. We’re so proud of him!

    Thanks for a fantastic article – deserves to be picked up nationally (at least!).

  4. October 22, 2010

    I believe it will… Any person who focuses on themselves and the people they are serving, insteading of wasting time pointing fingers is way ahead of the rest!

  5. October 23, 2010

    Thanks Sharon .. I crashed the party on election night – the first time I’ve been compelled to attend a political event. Thanks for being part of the team!

  6. […] While that helped build his momentum, it really just spread a message about a man that was honest, organic and authentic. He just didn’t throw up a Twitter account and website and make some videos the day he decided he wanted to be mayor, he had the accounts rolling long before then. […]

  7. Grover Cleveland
    March 3, 2011

    As a voter I had two major considerations.
    1). Conduct of the candidate during the run-up to the election
    2). Credentials.

    On point one, Both Ms. Higgins and Mr. McIver had moments where their behaviour made me question – is this the person that I want in the boss’ office at City Hall. Mr. Nenshi was always prepared and humble in his conduct that I saw.

    For the second point, Ms. Higgins demonstrated no understanding of process, budgets, running meeting or any educational background that would suggest she has any experience or preparation for running of city government. Mr. McIver has had several years as a alderman (as they were still called) and he was a big C conservative. While he was better experienced in the matters of running the city he still did not seem to have any insight on this subject.

    Mr. Nenshi had a solid portfolio of ideas on his media campaigns but he had the right experience, education and insights. That is was what garnered my vote. It was well presented in his social media but that was not the deciding factor for me.

    As referenced in the original article. Had Ms. Higgins or Mr. McIver used youtube or twitter in a similar manner – it would have ruined them. They just aren’t suited to the fresh, low fuss still that Mr. Nenshi presented.

  8. […] the most multicultural cities in the country. I hate to trot out our Mayor as an example, but yeah, Naheed Nenshi can be the poster boy of the diversity of our city. […]

  9. […] gone back and re-read the piece I wrote just after the election about how Nenshi was elected. Still, one of the greatest behind-the-scenes looks I’ve seen at the campaign was written in […]

  10. […] or left. He’s a non-partisan in the true sense of the word. I’ve often described him as Politician 2.0. He does what makes sense instead of what ideologically […]

  11. […] has been 2 years since Naheed Nenshi became Mayor of Calgary employing a similar tactic of openness, and […]

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