On May 7, 2012, François Hollande took over from Nicolas Sarkozy as President of France.  If, for many, the final vote was read as an indictment against Sarkozy, more than a vote for Hollande, both candidates outdid themselves equally in one area: they were both equally inept at handling the social media opportunity.  

As we reflect on the Obama-Romney duel, one can observe that social media and politics are inextricably linked.  While social media has had a well-noted impact in the Arab Spring and, increasingly, in deeply controlled countries such as Saudi Arabia and China, the relationship has even more impact in a democratic forum, where openness and liberty of expression are enabled, along with the potential for anonymity. 

In the case of Sarkozy and Hollande in France, both candidates and their teams failed dismally to “use” social media.  To demonstrate their misunderstanding, both candidates merely used social media channels as one more place for one-way messaging, duplicating their traditional media efforts.  Their social media activities serve as a perfect counter-example for others and, in particular, for business leaders on how not to run a social media strategy.

The missed opportunity was twofold 

On the one hand, Sarkozy and Hollande failed to listen, learn and exchange with the electorate, which could have, at the margin, truly had an effect on the outcome. It only takes 1% to 3% of the vote to swing the majority of democratic elections.  There was, in sum, no effort to build community, invite discussion, identify digital influencers or otherwise engage the electorate. Secondly, and more tragically for France, the whole question of the digital economy was never raised. 

Perhaps the digital space was not the decisive battleground for the French presidential elections; nor did it have a role in materially influencing the ultimate winner, since much of the French electorate continues to kowtow to traditional media.  However, the manner in which social media was used (or not used) clearly did not help.  Bottom line, it was a missed opportunity to help promote digital media and encourage investment in the digital space.

A French public that still prefers TV?

If the graph above (from Les Echos – article here in French) shows the relative strength of TV (62%) as a source of information about the elections, the combined scores for social networks (5%), non-media websites (6%) and pure player media web sites (13%), means that there was room for a material impact on the digital airwaves.  

What was missing was an integrated communication plan that mixed and matched the different channels in ways that were adapted to those channels.  Each channel requires a specific style and a specific language.

The risky business of being yourself

For any politician, image is a key component of electability.  This is never truer than in the French presidential elections.  As is so often the case, the obsession with image and portraying the perfect person leads to a stiffness that belies authenticity.  

Rather than look for the positives, such politicians tend to focus on avoiding the negatives.  It is all about risk management, all the while polishing the photo opportunities, sharpening the barbs and refining the sound bytes.

If France’s political process and access to media by the candidates is overseen by a specific body, called the CSA, it failed to take the Internet adequately into consideration, perhaps with good reason.  It is (a) an unwieldy network to scrutinize and (b) the people themselves are the media. 

French electoral laws have not been revised to reflect the burgeoning presence of social media.  In a string of surreal moments of media coverage on Election Day, none of the journalists or commentators were allowed to comment via their social media outlets.  In the end, the social media channels were thrust into the spotlight only for their ability to uncover in advance the winner, as opposed to the ceremonious and traditional “8 pm reveal” provided on television. 

Overall, the preoccupations of the governing bodies and political candidates spoke more to an outdated mindset and culture of fear and control.

General lack of innovation still apparent

Outside of the badges that Sarkozy offered on his website (largely for propagating information), much like Foursquare badges, there was nothing of interest or new in either of the two campaigns. Moreover, neither of the camps established a presence on Pinterest or Tumblr, and neither saw fit to create a blog.  Worse, the only presence on Pinterest was a parodical board for Nicolas Sarkozy

Listening tools are necessary 

The one valid strategy that caught my attention was how the Socialist Party evidently budgeted its social media activities under market research.  Even if this strategy was somewhat obscured from the public eye, it is safe to say that using social media as market research to test and improve campaign messages is a smart investment in resources, especially when messages are time sensitive.  For example, such market research can help a candidate adjust his or her position before a television debate or other public presentation.

Being effective offline is a good recipe for strong online community

Neither Sarkozy nor Hollande was born to be community builders, men of the people.  And it showed.  Their campaigns were one-way, non-conversational and sterile.  At best, the Facebook and Twitter presences were a pure reproduction of the message on other media.

Below is a table of the Twitter accounts of Hollande and Sarkozy.  Evaluating their communication strategy simply via the numbers, the table compares both candidates against Obama, who might seem to be a role model insofar as his team crafted a successful 2008 campaign.  The figures were taken on the day of the final round, May 6, 2012.

*The 30/day figure is adjusted to reflect that his account was truly activated only from November 2011 through May 2012. 

The daily tweet rate was absurdly high for Sarkozy (48.3) compared to Obama (2.1).  In reality, Hollande’s number was similarly ridiculous at around 30 per day.  For both parties, their communication teams bombarded their Twitter followers with a barrage of 140-character manifestos.  On the whole, the Twitter activities felt like goons fighting in a kid’s store. 

In an epilogue to the use of Twitter by French politicians, you may have seen that Hollande’s First Lady, Valerie Trierweiler, used Twitter rather unwisely, aiming a barbed tweet against Hollande’s former wife, Ségolène Royal, which caused an outcry in the media.  

@fhollande’s account was abandoned a few days after the elections, not without a few more outbursts (notably on May 15).  Instead, people were encouraged to follow the official @Elysee account, which was and is plagued with a stiff and un-interactive stream and an unsurprisingly anemic 170K followers.  This account, which was begun under the Sarkozy regime (2008), suffers from a consistent and general lack of interest.

Lessons for business and brands

For members of the C-suite of large organizations intending to figure out the scope, dynamics and potential impact of digital and social media on their business, the lessons of how not to run a campaign are multiple.  Here are five key takeaways for business leaders.

  1. Leading by example
    Among the key learnings from the Sarkozy/Hollande example, if the boss is not digitally fluent, it can have a nasty tendency to show up in the online stream.  Teams will be given inappropriate direction, misguided objectives and, in all likelihood, insufficient resources.

    Not that all bosses must tweet, but when a CEO actively participates online and understands the digital nuances, it are likely to have positive ramifications on the overall digital strategy.

  2. Community build
    I believe it’s fair to say that if you don’t know how to build community offline, you will probably struggle online.  Building a community takes time in order to create a sense of belonging and to build mutual trust around a common set of values.  The behavior and attitude that underlie the building of community in real life (“IRL”) are absolutely transferable online.
  3. Listening to your constituents
    Social media — including forums, blogs and social networks — can be valuable ways of staying in touch.  Bosses, especially those who are isolated and “protected” from the reality on the ground, can benefit from listening in on the un-moderated content.

    Going further, in the spirit of the Hollande campaign, it can be rather powerful to consider social media as part of market research.  At the very least, market research should be incorporating material from social media and other online sources.

  4. Getting the right media mix
    On the one hand, the messages must be aligned across all channels.  Naturally, original material can and should be re-purposed and adapted in accordance with the specific social media.  However, the communication strategy must respect the purpose of each media.

    Specifically, mass media methods cannot be copy and pasted into social media channels.  Brands must consider these channels for listening and exchanging with the audience (aka friends or followers).  In no way can social media channels be used uniquely to deliver one-way messages.

  5. Innovation
    While there is no benefit to frivolous participation in social media, there is something to be said for being innovative by trying new media and/or trying to invent new tools and methods within the existing [social] media.   When Obama started using Twitter in 2008, there were only 3 million users.

    At the time, it was almost revolutionary for a Presidential candidate to “bother” with social media, much less a start-up small social media site.  Aside from showing that your organization allows for experimentation, the message may be in the media you use.

    In the case of using new social media sites — where the audience is, by definition, smaller, but where the first mover advantage may pay off in spades – it is key to have a good network of advisors/trend spotters who know how to identify the more interesting startups.

The use of social media in business is not necessarily for everyone.  Bottom line: if the business leader and enterprise culture are not ready for the transformation, it is advisable first to observe, learn, train and trial before launching oneself.