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17. New Media
Shortly after arriving at the Heritage Foundation in 2007, I was confronted with a cruel reality. My job as the think tank’s “new media guru” was to make sure we were on the cutting edge of communicating our ideas in the digital world, yet we lacked the online tools to do it.
Heritage didn’t have a blog. There was no active policy-focused email newsletter. Twitter wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Our YouTube videos lacked pizzazz. And Facebook had only recently opened registration to everyone.
It’s amazing to think how far we’ve come. Digital media provide a powerful way to advance Heritage’s policy objectives. They allow us to bypass the traditional gatekeepers regulating the flow of information. No longer does Heritage have to rely exclusively on a newspaper editor to run an op-ed or a TV producer to book a policy expert. Today it’s possible to get our message directly to millions of Americans with just a few clicks.
Getting there wasn’t easy. In fact, as we began to experiment, not everyone in the building was sold on our new means of communication. For a scholarly think tank that cherishes tradition, blogging wasn’t exactly viewed as a noble profession. Nor was having an active presence on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter—networks that initially got a bad rap before becoming staples of American life.
The early challenges didn’t stop us from trying new things, however. And we persevered, creating an active blog, building a large email list, delivering frequent video updates, and growing our social media networks. As a result, Heritage today is viewed as a leading online success story.
So how did it happen?
Having a sound strategy, support from our leadership team, and a willingness to experiment were the keys to attracting a large online following among our supporters. As more of our policy experts saw the impact of blogging, they wrote more often. When they realized the power of videos, they clamored to get in the studio. And when they saw the level of engagement on social media, they wanted to be a part of it.
Of course, there were bumps along the way. Some of the things we tried didn’t work as we had hoped. But that didn’t stop us from experimenting. And, after all, how do you stay on the cutting edge of new media if you’re not willing to take a risk?
These risks can pay off in profound ways. Consider our daily Morning Bell e-newsletter. We launched it in early 2008 to communicate the most important message of the day. We had no idea it would also become an important online fundraising vehicle for Heritage. Launching an e-newsletter from scratch was certainly a risk in terms of the investment and resources, but now it’s one of our signature products and has the added benefit of recruiting new supporters. More importantly, it’s how we advance our policy objectives in the context of current events.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out Heritage was missing this valuable tool to communicate. We just needed a vision and a strategy to execute it. Email might not be hip and cool, but it is the one thing people read religiously every day. My point is this: If you’re doing your job well as an online strategist or new media manager, you won’t just focus on the flashy and cool toys. Examine how you can do a better job with some of the basic tools first.
So where do you start?
Take an audit of all that your organization does online, and then evaluate if there are ways to improve, alter, or enhance your communication tactics. This is important for a couple of reasons: It allows you to have a full inventory of what’s out there, and it helps you determine the areas where your organization might be missing something or be redundant.
Once you’ve done an audit, you can begin to develop your strategy. Set goals—both professional and personal—for what you’d like to accomplish on behalf of the organization and the skill set you’ll need to do it. If you’re managing a staff, define targets for them to reach. In a world where people and organizations are measured by the number of Facebook fans and Twitter followers, it’s essential to track your progress.
Yet don’t confuse this growth with success. Our mission at Heritage is to formulate and promote conservative public policy. Just because we have more Facebook fans today than yesterday doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve effected policy change. As our founder, Ed Feulner, says, there’s a difference between outputs and outcomes.
Keep this in mind when selling your strategy internally. Your colleagues need to understand how a new media campaign is advancing the organization’s underlying mission. An effective online strategy will not succeed in a vacuum, so having their support is critical to your success.
Promoting your organization’s strategic goals online will demonstrate to the leaders of your organization that it’s a worthwhile investment in talent and resources. And while it might be easier to sell them on the significance of having an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal or an interview on Fox News Channel, online communication channels can have just as big of an impact, particularly when you have good content, a compelling message, and a call to action.
In a world that’s becoming more technologically advanced each and every day, our institutions must find ways to adapt in order to advance the principles that guide our work.
Robert B. Bluey directs the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Media and Public Policy, where he researches and writes about instances of government malfeasance and corruption, filling a gap opened by the market changes roiling the media industry. The position is a natural fit for Bluey, who spent five years as a reporter and editor in Washington, D.C., before joining Heritage. In addition to promoting investigative journalism and government transparency, he assists with Heritage’s Computer-Assisted Investigative Reporting boot camp, a day-long seminar held periodically at the National Press Club. Bluey serves on the board of visitors for the Institute for Political Journalism and frequently speaks about journalism, blogging, and online strategy. Campaigns & Elections magazine named him a “Rising Star” in 2008. Politico placed Bluey among Washington’s “Top 50 Politicos.” He resides in Northern Virginia with his wife and son.
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