Mumbai: Public relations expert Roger Fisk was the key behind-the-scenes man for Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012. He’s known for his cutting-edge organizing strategies and innovative mobilization on social media. Fisk was a speaker at the ongoing media conference FICCI-Frames in Mumbai on Thursday, where he spoke about the integration of the political and media landscape and the significant role data play in an election.

In an interview, he spoke about the importance of data analytics and new media in modern election campaigns, his comments finding relevance to the ongoing political campaigning in India ahead of the national election next month. Edited excerpts:

What were the key factors you kept in mind while working on the two presidential campaigns for Barack Obama?

The first campaign was very unique because of the nature of senator Obama’s candidacy. It was the first time since 1968 that there wasn’t someone in the White House who wanted to stay there, either as a president running for re-election or a vice-president running to be president. So that made for a much brighter dialogue with the American people. We had some very innovative online tools that engaged with people like no one had ever done before. So I think that combination of his unique skills, his unique profile, along with some of the tools we developed, and then our moment in history, just kind of came together in a wonderful combination.

Can data analytics really make or break an election?

In this day and age when people get information from so many different sources, it’s really important that you understand as best as possible how people are living their online lives. Where do they shop, where do they get their news, and then try to get your message out to them in the ways that they are getting information in their daily lives. One of the main differences between 2008 and 2012 (election campaigns) was the explosion of social media platforms and we had to go where people were living their online lives.

Will television continue to be a strong media channel in terms of impacting voter choices?

Certainly in American politics. They asked a bank robber why do you rob banks and he said because that’s where the money is. Television, I think, is the traditional media version of the email. As much as everyone talks about social media and everything else, the central vehicle for people to give and take information is still going to be their email account. I think that applies to television in the traditional media world.

So you can look just where people are making decisions about how to spend their money and clearly television is still the cannon as opposed to any of these other things that are smaller weapons. Within that we need to understand the idea of television itself is quite fluid right now. We are not far away from the day where the ads that you see or I see, even if we are watching the same program, could be very different from one another. For the foreseeable future television is going to be the central vehicle. Almost everything else orbits around that.

Where should political campaigns put in money?

People just have to be very strategic and intelligent about every dollar they spend. There are two universes of people—the people you already have and what you need to do to keep them engaged, keep them supporting the campaign and keep them active. The second universe is who do you want to reach out to, who do you want to bring in and persuade and invite. And then figure out the best way to reach out to those people, and that can be through buying ad space on Youtube, or ramping up an SMS presence. There are all these different tools but you need to prioritize who are those one or two universes you want to reach out to, figure out the best tools to do, and that will help you get the most results for every dollar you spend.

Do you think social media could be an apparatus for change in an election year?

If an organisation or a political party or a candidate wants to have an exchange and actually hear from supporters and potential supporters, inhale and exhale the fears and have a conversation, it’s an invaluable tool. I think a lot of organisations make a mistake when they use these tools without really putting the staff resources and the budget resources into making them living, breathing and thriving muscular entities. That’s one of the things we did from the beginning. We tried to build relationships rather that push content from our side.

Do you follow Indian politics? What do you think about the Indian elections and the possible outcome this year?

No. I’m just starting to learn how little I know about America after three presidential campaigns in the US. So it is going to be a long time and I’ll need to learn a lot more before I open my mouth about any other country other than my own, which as much as I love it still mystifies me from time to time.

Could you talk about the book you’re working on, America was my office?

The book is literally about the three presidential campaigns. When I would be at weddings or at a cocktail reception people would ask me where do you work and I would joke and say America is my office. Because for all those years I had a Blackberry and a suitcase and the United States of America. I traveled almost 30 states in the first Obama campaign and I traveled 15 states in the 2012 campaign.

When it was all done, I had this overwhelming sense of having gone through something that was very special to me.

I just decided to put down everything on paper. It’s really just as if we were sitting around having a couple of beers and I told you stories about running around America and the presidential campaigns.

I’ve just finished the second draft. I should have an agent and a publisher in the next three months. So best case scenario, the book should be out by the end of this year, realistic scenario by early next year.

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