Communications expert Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.
McLuhan meant the vehicle used to convey the message is just as important and telling as the content itself, if not more so.
When it comes to the 2014 municipal election in Chilliwack, it’s a communications concept that rings true, with an explosion of social media use as candidates try to broadcast their message far and wide to get elected.
“It has been an important issue this year,” says UFV professor Darren Blakeborough.
Local media and reporters have been seeking out Blakeborough’s views recently on the impact of social media, in his role as assistant professor of Social, Media and Cultural Studies at UFV.
Candidates are looking to various forms of social media to engage in self-branding, but he cautions they need to be very strategic about it, and they need to be disciplined about staying on message.
“But from most of the examples I’ve looked at during this campaign, it seems to be almost an afterthought.”
Social media is both inexpensive and quick and therefore can’t be ignored as an electioneering tool.
“There’s no cost other than your time. But it seems a lot of the approaches are rather haphazard.
“So while it’s clearly an important tool in a modern election, it’s still only one of the tools in the toolbox.”
Candidates have been setting up Facebook profiles for their candidacies, posting election topics, and using Twitter to debate issues.
A couple of candidates in the Chilliwack election have been attacked or bullied on social media for their comments and portrayals.
One was a Facebook post by mayoralty candidate Cam Hull from last summer that was negative in tone about the teachers’ strike.
A Facebook poster commented when the matter was raised again: “Best to have a clean slate before you try and get votes for mayor. I am pretty sure telling teachers to ‘suck it’ is not a way to get much support.”
Hull later replied to the poster: “I’ve got nothing to hide. To be honest. I forgot I posted it” until a screen shot was posted of it, and people started reacting, and reposting.
But being disciplined about self branding is especially important for candidates to take heed of because “a misstep could haunt you,” Blakeborough stated.
He recommends they “don’t allow other people to interrupt or allow the discussion to devolve” away from key points, “especially trolls who can wreak havoc online.
“They will attack you, so the last thing you want to do is engage them.”
Incumbent Mayor Sharon Gaetz is running for re-election, but announced she was taking a break from social media during the campaign, due to the “overwhelming amount of correspondence” she is getting daily “with the election looming.”
Gaetz kept her personal Facebook page going, but has shut down Life in the ‘Wack, a page to share positivity, which has more than 6000 members, until after the election.
Blakeborough pointed to various examples where self branding is dependent on image, like NFL football star Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension in the wake of some video that emerged of him assaulting his wife in an elevator.
Where actual photographic evidence exists, it can make a big difference, he said, like election candidates captured in compromising positions, as another example.
“Things happen in life but photographic evidence weighs differently on people’s minds,” he said.
It’s a different type of election campaigning therefore in the digital world. A serious candidate needs to know absolutely everything available online about themselves.
“Candidates have to be aware of everything. People can Google everything that’s out there in the online world. So it’s not just the impact of social media, but all digital technology.”
It’s that acute awareness that may preclude some from running, or at least direct them on how to manage the main message.
“If a candidate has a lackadaisical approach or not aware of the potential, it can really bite them in the end.”