The way citizens learn about politics is undergoing a profound transformation. Political communication has never been more pivotal in shaping public perceptions, influencing opinions, and mobilizing citizens to action.

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This blog will explore the fundamental concept of political communication and its role. We’ll examine how social media has transformed political communication and political campaigns and how it has made it more accessible for newcomers.

Earned impressions of US presidential candidates
Total impressions of mentions of US presidential candidates; source: Determ

What is Political Communication?

Politics is the intricate web of activities that revolve around a country’s government and its elected representatives’ official actions. It’s a dynamic field with its language, strategies, and tools. Central to this realm is political communication, a process that plays a pivotal role in shaping our societies and governments. 

Inform, Persuade, and Call to Action: At its core, political communication involves crafting narratives that inform, persuade, and call citizens to action. It is not just about conveying information but about framing it in a way that resonates with people’s beliefs, emotions, and aspirations. Whether directed inward toward elected officials or outward toward the public, political communication is a tool for influencing opinions, decisions, and actions.

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Examples of Political Communication

To illustrate the concept of political communication, let’s delve into a hypothetical scenario in Newtown Springs. Here, two groups of citizens find themselves at odds over using a stretch of woods. One group advocates for a new highway, while the other supports creating mountain biking trails and a nature preserve.

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Both groups engage in political communication by petitioning their elected officials, presenting arguments in favor of their plans, and highlighting the drawbacks of the opposing side. This strategic messaging aims to sway the officials’ decisions in their favor. It exemplifies how political communication involves a battle of ideas and narratives.

Example of political communication; Barack Obama Presidential Campaign '08
Barack Obama ’08 Presidential Campaign (Britannica)

Alternatively, consider a scenario where the citizens have no plan for the woods. An elected official proposes the creation of a nature preserve, promoting the idea through media interviews and public appearances. Here, the elected official’s communication efforts serve to shape public opinion and garner support for the proposed project.

Political communication encompasses various forms, from media interviews and published documents to websites, op-eds, and political campaigns. However, it extends beyond traditional written and verbal communication. Elements like a politician‘s logo, mannerisms, and speaking style are integral to their political communication strategy. Charisma and audience engagement are key aspects of effective political communication, as they help politicians connect with their constituents personally.

How is Social Media Changing The Political Communication Environment?

The landscape of political communication is undergoing a profound transformation thanks to the advent of social media. As we explore how this digital revolution is changing the political communication environment, we’ll discover how it is reshaping political campaigns’ dynamics and amplifying newcomers’ voices in the political arena.

Social Media: A Game Changer in Political Campaigns

Traditional political campaigns have long been synonymous with exorbitant spending. Campaign budgets, often in the billions, made it challenging for political newcomers to gain traction without influential donors. This predicament perpetuated the incumbency advantage, with up to 90% of incumbents being reelected in what research terms “the incumbency advantage.” However, the emergence of social media has disrupted this entrenched narrative.

Entrepreneur and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign is a striking example of this paradigm shift. His short-lived campaign exceeded $1 billion, with more than 70% of the budget allocated to advertising. This massive spending highlights the enormous financial needs of U.S. political campaigns.

Mike Bloomberg shifts presidential ad campaign to focus on impeachment
Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg speaks during a rally Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

But it is on social media that the game has changed. Social media platforms empower incumbents and political newcomers to communicate directly with constituents on various topics, from policy discussions to personal anecdotes.

The Evolution of Political Communication

In the past, politicians primarily communicated through official channels, such as press conferences, televised appearances, and print media. However, today’s political landscape is marked by a notable departure from these traditional modes of communication. As Wharton marketing professor Pinar Yildirim observes, “If you look at the way that politicians communicate today, it’s very different than the way that they used to communicate five, ten years ago.”

The emergence of platforms like Twitter has enabled politicians to engage with the public in unprecedented ways. This shift raises an intriguing question: Why are politicians increasingly turning to social media? The answer lies in the profound impact it can have on political competition.

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Example of political communication; Joe Biden X post about Medicare
Joe Biden X post; source: Determ

The Role of Small Contributions

Social media also facilitates the collection of small campaign contributions, typically ranging from $5 to $100. While seemingly inconsequential in the context of multimillion-dollar campaigns, these small contributions represent a beacon of hope for supporters. The belief is that a multitude of small donations can significantly impact a candidate’s chances of success.

Effects of Social Media on Political Competition and Engagement

The Impact of Social Media on Political Competition

A recent study co-authored by Yildirim, titled “Social Media and Political Contributions: The Impact of New Technology on Political Competition,” delves into the transformative power of social media in politics. The study reveals that political newcomers can experience a significant surge in support by utilizing social media channels. These platforms, which cost next to nothing and are accessible to anyone with an internet connection, offer a pathway to challenge the incumbency advantage.

Within the first month of joining Twitter, politicians can raise between 1% and 3% of what they would have raised in a traditional two-year campaign. Notably, this gain primarily benefits newcomers, not incumbents, especially their reputation. The effect is further amplified when candidates include hyperlinks to additional information.

Importantly, this advantage isn’t tied to the age of the constituency, debunking the idea that it benefits tech-savvy candidates with younger supporters.

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Humanizing Politics Through Social Media

Beyond policy discussions, social media allows new candidates to humanize themselves in the eyes of voters. Personal anecdotes, interactions with pets, and casual conversations with supporters all contribute to a sense of connection between candidates and constituents. This personal touch helps voters relate to candidates on a more human level.

Use Case: Alexandra Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar

In 2020, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar hosted a remarkably unique voter outreach event that made quite a splash. They ventured into the world of live-streamed video games on Twitch, joining forces with a group of online strangers to collaboratively build a spaceship while trying to solve in-game mysteries. 

Example of political communication; AOC Streaming on Twitch X post

The outcome was nothing short of astounding by all the metrics typically used to evaluate such events. Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitch channel drew an astonishing 439,000 viewers, all engaged in real-time (to put it in perspective, the Twitch record is roughly 628,000 concurrent viewers). In total, about 5.2 million viewers tuned in to watch the stream. 

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The event’s impact transcended its runtime, with meme creators keeping the conversation alive throughout the week. This rapid and massive online audience engagement is a rarity for politicians. To illustrate, when Donald Trump and Joe Biden streamed campaign events on Twitch, they peaked at around 6,000 and 17,000 total views, respectively.

In this respect, they accomplished what many politicians strive for but often struggle to achieve: they appeared entirely relatable and down-to-earth. Credibility plays a significant role in this regard. AOC, in particular, has built a strong online presence and interacted with the public in an approachable, almost friendly way. The key to Ocasio-Cortez and Omar’s success is that, for a brief moment, they didn’t come across as opportunistic politicians but as genuinely motivated fellow citizens, just a couple of Twitch streamers who could easily be one of us.

Platform Strategies for Political Communication

The Coexistence of Traditional and Digital Campaigning

It’s worth noting that social media has not rendered traditional campaign methods obsolete. Newspapers and television stations provide valuable organic coverage, reaching wide audiences at no cost. Additionally, paid advertising remains a targeted way to convey specific messages to distinct audiences.

However, social media has undeniably emerged as a low-cost yet powerful tool in political competition. Political leaders may prefer communicating through social media because it allows candidates to communicate directly with constituents, sharing their values, personal stories, and policy goals. Moreover, it offers a platform for engagement long before candidates officially declare their intent to run for office.

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What Digital Platforms Work Best for Political Communication?

According to Kreiss, “the rapid changes of the Internet means we cannot presume continuity” in the ways that social media platforms are used by politicians and citizens alike. Most research tends to emphasize Twitter and Facebook over other platforms, but this is likely related to the relative ease with which data can be gathered from these platforms compared to others. 

Nevertheless, Twitter has long been considered a useful tool for “political marketing and image control.” At the same time, Facebook has been attractive for an extended period due to its large user base. As such, political actors might have been better off focusing their online endeavors elsewhere than Instagram.

However, US political practitioners identified audio-visual platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok as important venues for campaigning efforts – especially to reach potentially younger voters. Additionally, YouTube has become a valuable tool for politicians to share videos of campaign rallies and messages. Blogs and web pages also allow politicians to share their thoughts and policy positions in more detail.

US Presidential Elections: Owned and Earned Channels Comparison

The following candidates have been selected for tracking within the specified time frame, spanning from mid-September ’23 to mid-October ’23: Donald Trump, Joseph Biden, Vivek Ramaswamy, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Chris Christie, Doug Burgum, and Asa Hutchinson.

Please note that the data presented here is based on one month and may not accurately reflect the real-time information or the current state of affairs when reading this article.

The volume of posts by each US presidential candidate across their owned platforms
The volume of posts by each US presidential candidate across their owned platforms; source: Determ

As per findings from Determ, a prominent media monitoring and social listening platform, the aforementioned political candidates predominantly employ Twitter as their preferred medium for engaging with their constituents, followed by Facebook and Instagram.

Share of voice by no. of mentions for US presidential candidates 2024
Comparison of the volume of posts by each US presidential candidate; source: Determ

An analysis of the content volume published by each candidate during the specified period reveals that Vivek Ramaswamy stands out as the most active, having posted nearly 400 times.


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Earned share of voice comparison for number of mentions of US presidential candidates
Share of voice of US presidential candidates on earned channels; source: Determ

However, it is not unexpected that the most prominently discussed candidates within online media are Trump and the incumbent, Biden, according to Determ’s comparative analysis of the share of voice across various earned media channels.

Conclusion

Through examples, we’ve seen the battle of ideas and narratives unfold in political communication. Showcasing its power to influence opinions and decisions. Moreover, we’ve explored how this form of communication extends beyond traditional methods to encompass a wide range of tools, including the transformative force of social media.

We’ve delved into the humanizing effect of social media, allowing politicians to forge more relatable connections with voters. The unique case of Twitch and the success of figures like AOC and Ilhan Omar in the world of live streaming have exemplified the potential for rapid and massive audience engagement through online platforms.

This doesn’t mean social media doesn’t coexist with traditional campaigning methods. Each of these offers distinct advantages. One thing is clear: the way we perceive and participate in politics is being redefined, and the future of political communication holds exciting and sometimes challenging possibilities.

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