Obama Campaign’s New Media Staff was NOT a Part of the Tech Team

Cross-posted on techPresident and K Street Cafe

At a New Organizing Institute presentation this morning, former Obama new media director Joe Rospars (last seen in these pages talking about the importance of good content to the campaign’s work) made a really significant point — his department was NOT a part of the campaign’s tech team. Instead, it was coequal with communications, field/grassroots, finance, etc., and was in fact just as much a client of the technology folks as, say, the press team was.

His remark jumped out at me because it’s true so rarely. More often, online organizers and online advocacy staff are put in the technology box rather than allowed to be communicators — for instance, at my old environmental job, people often came to me with their computer problems, when I’m a writer/designer and in no way a real techie (trust me). And online communicators are often the last people consulted when messaging and outreach strategy are being planned, when they should be a part of the process from the beginning.

This also gets at a deeper issue in the online advocacy world — that political people often think of the internet as technology, when really it’s communications. Often, the problems political groups encounter in online outreach have nothing to do with hardware, software or websites, and everything to do with institutional systems and institutional structures. In other words, it’s not the tools, it’s the people and how they’re organized and directed to USE the tools.

The Obama campaign used the internet as well as they did not because they employed tools that were particularly new (database-driven field organizing, email fundraising, online video and social networking have all been around for years) but because they worked out human systems to put those tools to work effectively. A critical part? That the internet people were NOT put in an online technology box — they were integrated into the general structure of the entire campaign. Until candidates and advocacy groups realize that online communications is about communications and not really about technology, they’ll continue to miss the internet’s real potential for politics.

Update: SOME Republicans are listening, too…thanks for the shout-out, Jon.



  1. Kevin Bondelli

    I had the same experience when I was working for the AZ Democratic Party. I was expected to manage all of the tech resources, provide tech support, show people how to mail merge in MS Office, etc.

    Not only that, but my internet department was treated like a 3rd class dept., and eventually was even removed as a department and demoted to a sub-communications position.

    What was so positive about the Obama campaign was not only that they separated the IT from Online, but that they respected the online dept. as a stand-alone senior level component of the campaign. A lot of local campaigns and parties are wall behind on this.

  2. Isaac Luria

    So absolutely the case. Progressives have to understand that an online position is communications, not tech. I’m lucky that my organization recognizes that – and the growth and ability to leverage the online space has been really tremendous.

  3. Charles

    Yes. Double yes. That being said, a lot of times folks in communications depts. are obsessed with crafting messages, and aren’t in the trenches dealing with people. Communications folks don’t see themselves as ‘organizers.’ I think those of us in the emerging online organizing field do see ourselves that way.

  4. Joe Flood

    Absolutely. You and I share a former employer and, in that organization, online was always thought of last, when we were that of at all. Granted, it was the 90s, but compared to the print publication and direct mail, we were small fry.

    I’ve also worked in a couple of organizations where the communications folks make up URLs, include them in ads, and don’t bother to tell the online folks. Glad to see that the Obama campaign was so much smarter.

  5. cpd

    Man, this one hit a nerve! If only we could capture and channel the frustration of advocacy-group online communications staff, we could power America for decades to come.

  6. cpd

    Joe, that bit about the comms people using URLs without telling the web team was one of my pet peeves for years — they sometimes wouldn’t tell me about it until AFTER the ad started running…when they remembered to put in a URL at all. Great idea — let’s spend a bunch of money on ads without bothering to give people a way to follow up on them. Genius.

  7. Alicia

    Amen, Colin!
    And, yes, that whole “we put this URL in an ad running in the Post next Thursday, can you build us something – oh and we have no content” card is still constantly played. Ugh.

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