x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Sharing secrets of Obama's success

Middle East companies can learn a lot from the web strategies used in Barack Obama's race for the White House, says the president's former events director.

Roger Fisk, the former director of special events for Barack Obama's election campaign in 2008, says he expects to take on a similar role in Mr Obama's re-election effort. Satish Kumar / The National
Roger Fisk, the former director of special events for Barack Obama's election campaign in 2008, says he expects to take on a similar role in Mr Obama's re-election effort. Satish Kumar / The National

It's easy to set up a website, but using online media to really engage with people is a more effective way to promote a brand.

Roger Fisk, the former director of special events for Barack Obama's election campaign in 2008, underlined that point in a whistle-stop visit to Dubai.

Mr Fisk started working for Mr Obama in 2007 and for 22 months toured the United States coordinating events for the president-to-be, with online outreach as one of his key roles.

Businesses in the UAE can use some of the strategies employed in Mr Obama's campaign, according to Mr Fisk, who was in Dubai to speak at the UAE chapter of the Entrepreneurs' Organisation.

"Anyone can get out a traditional message: you can buy a full page in a newspaper and do that," he said.

"The question is whether people are really using these social-media tools to listen. And that was one of the earliest and most important things about the Obama campaign: it was truly used to listen to and engage people."

About US$750 million (Dh2.75bn) was raised in Mr Obama's race for the White House, the majority of which was donated online.

Mr Fisk's tasks involved organising events, media work and liaising with security. He expects to take on a similar role in Mr Obama's re-election effort.

So what was your message to entrepreneurs here in your recent visit to Dubai?

I just try to share some of the tools and approaches [used] in American politics right now. Because I think it's applicable to everything from introducing a new product to a market to bringing new life to an old brand. It's everything from the street-campaign level of things, to how you use social media and leveraging free media.

What can leaders of the Gulf countries learn from a social-media campaign such as Mr Obama's?

It's a wonderful way for leaders or corporate executives - or anyone - to really listen, should they choose to. Having your finger on the pulse of where a particular demographic is, or where a certain age range is, or where people are leaning in terms of supporting or not supporting something … I think the value of that to me is very clear.

What's your perspective on the role of Facebook and Twitter in the Arab Spring uprisings?

Social media can help amplify a message and help get that message out. But it can't create that message. People are going to do what they are going to do. I don't think a great social media campaign can take a failure of a product and make it a success. So what social media really does is accelerate the rate at which people that are never going to meet can still connect. It happens with products, campaigns and with social movements.

What is the most important social-media site for a campaign like Mr Obama's?

Overall I would have to say Facebook. Because I think Facebook has evolved such that it can really serve as the hub of other social media. And it's very easy to use. So I would start there. That's why bank robbers go to banks - because that's where the money is.

Facebook has just launched an office in Dubai. What do you think about that?

It's fantastic. I think it will allow people to customise the experience that much more. [Regional] entrepreneurs will have opportunities to reach out to people in much more focused ways. It's one of those situations where a rising tide floats all boats. It can be very good, especially since Dubai is changing so quickly.

The Obama campaign raised hundreds of millions of dollars. How important was online media in that?

Very important. We were the first to use texting behind specific fund-raising pushes. Our online tool, called MyBarackObama.com, was built to be a wide-open platform that anyone can come and use. Obviously, every campaign, business and product does a lot of this. The question is whether or not they really look at it as a tool and [if] they're really listening to the people.

What is your involvement in Mr Obama's re-election campaign?

I am in charge of trips. When the president or the first lady goes somewhere, I would be in change of the team that goes there beforehand and works on everything from what we are doing, who we are doing it with, the budget, working with the Secret Service and local police and local elected officials. That's what I assume I'll be doing; often I get asked to do other things.

During the last election campaign, how closely did you work with Mr Obama?

I would have four days or so in a city to get ready for him. So every fourth day on his calendar, I was in charge of it. You do that over 18 months and 32 states … I wouldn't say that we were buddies. It's not my place to be his friend or anything like that. I think we reached a point of trust and communication, which is all I could have ever asked for and that's all I need.

Five years is a long time in social media. What changes this year?

This year there's a much larger emphasis about customising the online experience to the individual and trying to listen and learn people's trends online and [then] try to design tools that respond and engage with that. That's the frontier right now: to try to design your product and your online programming in a way that it can respond to behaviour and customise how you are reaching out to individuals.

I read that you used to be in a rock-reggae band called the Popgun Seven.

I was … up until my wife and I moved into Washington DC. It was a seven-piece band at the intersection of reggae and rock. I still play music; I grew up classically trained. And that is just a ton of fun. Similar to politics, it's a great way to go around and look at and learn about America and meet different people and play gigs all over the place. There are some stories I could share over a beer, perhaps.

You sound like a busy man. How do you find time to fit things in like that?

Since I left Boston to move to DC to work in the administration, the band stayed there. So it has definitely taken a back seat. If I had come down to DC, and said, 'Oh, but I can't do that because I have practice or a gig,' then you start to get a B-plus in two different pursuits. And I told myself I was going to do my best to get an A in working for the president.

bflanagan@thenational.ae