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Key to political success: be authentic, allow two-way communications, former top Obama adviser says

This article originally appeared in the Hill Times.

Social media is today one of the most important ways to communicate a message in politics, as political communication in the modern era is a “two-way conversation” and information has to be provided to people where they are and in a way they could offer their feedback, says a former top communication adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama.

“Quite frankly, communications and political communication requires a back and forth,” said Robert Gibbs, former press secretary and top adviser to President Obama in an interview with The Hill Times.

“Social media particularly is kind of a continuing, ongoing two way conversation. … It’s certainly a huge aspect of it in a way that it didn’t exist just a few years ago.”

Mr. Gibbs, 42, who served as the top communication adviser to President Obama for about a decade, including when Mr. Obama was in the Senate, on the 2008 presidential campaign, in the White House, left the White House in 2011, but worked on 2012 re-election campaign, is coming to Toronto as a keynote speaker at the first annual Progress Gala of the Broadbent Institute on Nov. 21 which will be attended by politicians of all parties and business executives. 

Founded by former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, the institute “is an independent, non-partisan organization championing progressive change through the promotion of democracy, equality, and sustainability and the training of a new generation of leaders.” 

Mr. Gibbs, who now runs his own communications firm and is an analyst for MSNBC and NBC, will talk about how to communicate to win in a new and diverse era in political campaigning and political communications at the event, which will be held at the Art Gallery of Ontario. In his speech, he said he would share his experiences as a former top communications adviser to the president.

Mr. Gibbs said the media landscape, especially social media, is rapidly changing and politicians and political players must be a part of it. He started using Twitter in February of 2010 when he held the position of White House press secretary and he said at the time most White House reporters wondered why he had started to use it and what it meant. Today, he said it’s unthinkable for a press secretary not to use Twitter to communicate messages on a regular basis.

But Mr. Gibbs said that effective political communication using social media and traditional sources of communications such as TV, radio, and print media are the keys to connecting with voters. He said in addition to having “genuine authenticity,” politicians should give voters an avenue to offer their feedback and make them part of the conversation to make it a two-way conversation.

“It begins with genuine authenticity. You learn this in politics probably at the very beginning. You can’t be something that you aren’t and if you try, people snuff that out pretty quickly,” said Mr. Gibbs.

“The other big lesson is giving people a voice and giving people a stake in their outcomes is tremendously important and that’s where social media ends up being very important. It’s not top down. The President talks about this, I’ve heard him say this a million times. Change doesn’t happen from the top down, it happens from the bottom up. That, I think is tremendously important.”

To connect with voters, another lesson that Mr. Gibbs said he learned from Mr. Obama is that people should understand why a politician has made a decision. This way, people might disagree with an unpopular decision but they will understand the reasoning behind it.

“When I worked for the president, his view was not that he could universally make everyone happy. His view often was that ‘People might not always agree with me, but it’s important for people to understand why I came to the decision I came to.’ If they understood why he’d come to that decision that they’d at least have an understanding,” Mr. Obama said. 

Asked about the significance of polls two years before an election, Mr. Gibbs said they are important but are even more important at the beginning of the campaign and during the campaign because that’s when undecided voters pay more attention to what politicians are saying and make up their minds.

“You have folks that you think will naturally be predisposed to one side or the other, one argument or the other, one party or candidate or the other. And then you still have that portion in the middle that is going to essentially decide the outcome and the margin. For a lot of folks, those are people that are going to listen very intently and what’s discussed,” said Mr. Gibbs.

Mr. Gibbs pointed out that running organized and disciplined election campaigns are of critical importance. Also, a campaign should always be ready to deal with unforeseen events.

“There’s no doubt that campaigns themselves matter greatly and how you conduct them, how you communicate them and quite frankly, how you react to events that happen during the campaign mean a lot.”