September 2000

Elected officials, government administrators, campaign managers, lobbyists, and any other public affairs professional trying to shape debate on key public policy issues face new challenges because of the expanding importance of the Internet as a tool for political education and action.

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 33 percent of U.S. citizens currently use the Internet to inform themselves on politics, a rise of 13 points from 1998. The Internet is the only information outlet the Pew study found to be on the rise. For example, Pew reports that the percent of people who use the broadcast networks as a major news source has dropped six points in the last two years.

People are using the Internet as more than just an information source. According to Peter Hart Research 61 percent of people believe the Internet should be used to make it easier for citizens to interact with government. In other words, people want to use the Internet as both a source of political information and as a vehicle to help them engage in political action.

To operate successfully in this environment, those who manage efforts to promote political candidates or policy issues—whether they work inside or outside of government—need to understand (a) the role of the Internet in political discourse and (b) the implications for public affairs campaigns.

The Role of the Internet in Political Discourse

More and more citizens are using the Internet to take greater personal control of their engagement in political discourse. Specifically, the Internet:

  • promotes active information gathering;
  • facilitates individual political action; and
  • energizes community political action.

Promoting Active Information Gathering
The expanding role of the Internet is transforming the passive relationship citizens have had with political news sources. In traditional media, editors define the relative importance and amount of coverage accorded to political issues. The Internet, in contrast, provides a range of mechanisms that give more control to individuals, allowing them to create a self-defined universe of information. Three of these information gathering mechanisms are:

  • personalized news;
  • alternative viewpoints; and
  • repeat access.

Personalized News. People can customize many Internet news sources to reflect their personal priorities. For example, users can utilize a topic selection mechanism to notify Internet sources of their specific interests and create an individualized news page where issues important to them are highlighted and topics that are less critical to them are filtered out. They also can request advance notification when new items that match their interests are posted and define the level of detail—headlines versus short descriptions versus full articles—that they initially receive from Internet sources.

Alternative Views. People can access easily multiple Internet news sources in order to receive diverse coverage of the same issue. For example, many Internet portals serve as clearing houses for numerous online news sources, providing one point of contact for many different editorial points of view. Advanced news search engines allow users to find quickly and easily specific information about political topics from a large number of sources using cross-referenced search criteria such as issue key words, types of content (feature articles, editorials, or short news items), and defined time periods.

Repeat Access. People can use the Internet to provide immediate access to an extensive online repository of past news items. For example, many Internet news sites offer full-text versions of all their stories from the preceding several months, often in a free, searchable archive. Some also offer the same option for stories going back years for only a nominal charge.

Facilitating Political Individual Action
Citizens generally think of gathering political information and engaging in political action in response to that information as distinct processes. Although finding out about a particular candidate or issue from a newspaper or television program may spur individuals to become more politically active, initiating actions such as registering to vote, expressing a policy view to a public official, or making a contribution to an advocacy organization, requires a person to put down the newspaper (or turn off the television), find the appropriate person to contact, write a letter or make a phone call, and wait for a response. When people become informed about political issues through Internet sources, however, they often are provided options to take immediate political action. Two such mechanisms available to Internet users are:

  • opinion registration; and
  • online organization membership.

Opinion Registration. People can use many Internet information sources to indicate immediately their positions on political topics they find out about on the site. For example, a number of sites offer users who have accessed an online news item the opportunity to register their position on the candidate or issue addressed in that item in an instant poll. Generally, these polls provide immediate feedback on how many other people share the user's view and how many hold different views. Other sites provide a mechanism to facilitate an immediate e-mail opinion letter that a reader can send directly to a news reporter/editor or to an elected representative to indicate the reader's position on a particular issue.

Online Organization Membership. People often can move directly from an Internet political news item to other Internet resources that help them identify and join advocacy organizations that are addressing the political issue raised in the item. For example, Internet political news stories often contain contact information (Web sites, phone numbers, and addresses) that allows users to reach organizations involved in political action on the issue covered in the story. In addition, the Web sites of many of these organizations provide online enrollment and contribution mechanisms that allow people to take immediate action to support the organization's efforts.

Energizing Community Political Action
Using the Internet to gather information on political issues, inform officials about positions, and identify organizations involved in the issue helps people engage in individual political activities more efficiently. But the Internet also can connect individuals with others who share their political interests and facilitate the collective action of these groups of people. Two of these capabilities are:

  • online dialogues; and
  • tools for collective action.

Online Dialogues. People can use the Internet to identify others who want to discuss the same policy issues and to engage them in an exchange of views. For example, some Web sites support these online communities by providing group communications tools, such as e-mail list servers (where e-mail from any community member is distributed to all members of the community), discussion boards (where one member of the community posts a message and other members can respond, creating a threaded online discussion), and chat rooms (where members of the community share ideas in real-time text, audio, and/or video conversations). Other Web sites take a more active role in shaping online community discussions, providing a moderator to direct debate in a guided discussion.

Tools for Collective Action. People can use the Internet not only to discuss political issues but also to facilitate more effective collective action. People that become more informed about an issue through Internet sources and use online tools to join organizations that are acting to shape policy on that issue also can turn to the Internet to help them work together with others with similar policy goals. Organizations can facilitate this collective action by providing online advocacy resources. For example, a site may offer a calendar that is linked directly to online tools to register for a policy event (such as a public hearing), coordinate travel arrangements to the event, and provide contact information for other groups that will attend the event. Other sites provide citizens with message points, sample letters, and other material to help communicate their views to public officials.

The Implications for Public Affairs Campaigns

The Internet is having a profound influence on how citizens gather information to shape their positions on political issues and how they become politically active (both individually and collectively) once they are informed. For example, as noted above, Internet mechanisms that promote active information gathering allow individuals to decide what political issues are covered in "their" news source. The ability of individuals to create a personalized news profile drawn from multiple sources means that they have greater control over what issues they follow, decreasing the influence of major print and broadcast news outlets.

In addition, the ready access to alternative viewpoints available on the Internet allows people to select for themselves, from a larger and larger universe of diverse sources, what information is most critical for developing policy positions. In other words, the Internet's personalized news and alternative viewpoints capabilities mean that people are no longer constrained by editorial decisions made by others; instead they are learning how to be their own news editors.

Changes such as these, in turn, are altering the management of campaigns seeking to influence policy debates. Although these forces are just beginning to take hold, several observations—about the Internet's impact on the process of political engagement and the standards to guide successful political and advocacy campaigns that emerge as a result—can already be formulated.

For example, in order to reach the millions of individuals-as-news-editors that are emerging from the growth of Internet news sources, issue managers need to:

  • germinate ideas among a wide range of Internet sources;
  • develop advocacy material designed expressly for the Internet; and
  • ensure even tighter message discipline.

Germinate ideas. Information prepared to educate and persuade the public may never reach audiences that rely on the Internet: as noted above, the traditional model of focusing media outreach on the most prominent outlets does not reflect how news items are disseminated on the Internet. Therefore, issue managers need to supplement their normal media outreach efforts by germinating their advocacy material among a wide range of Internet outlets (from which their messages can be widely forwarded). This germination can be accomplished both through person-to-person outreach to many online editors and by new technology services that automatically disperse material to sites likely to have users who would be interested in those materials.

Advocacy material. Even when material reaches Internet audiences, it may not always be read: much advocacy material designed for distribution through print medium (such as long, text-heavy position papers) is not reader-friendly on the Internet. Issue managers can address the need for Internet-friendly presentations of advocacy material by developing integrated packages of documents that each communicate the same basic message but that are designed differently to take best advantage of the medium through which they are delivered.

Message discipline. Finally, material that eventually reaches (and is read by) Internet audiences may still present a garbled message: because the Internet promotes abridged material, which is then often combined with material from sources with a competing view, or juxtaposed to contradictory material from supposed allies, material dispersed via the Internet may not deliver the intended message, especially if that material originally had inconsistencies or lack of focus. As a result, issue managers need to become even more vigilant in exercising message discipline over all communications.


As the Internet reshapes the public affairs campaign landscape, issue managers will be well served to reassess their communication strategies to reflect these changes. New strategies must address the needs of an audience that is no longer passively, but actively gathering information and seeking ways to become more politically active, both as individuals and as communities.

Effective use of the Internet produces a more powerful and sustainable public affairs campaign. By using the Internet's capabilities to get the right information to people who now use the Internet as a primary source of political news, and by providing these people with online tools to help them take supportive political action, issue managers can continue to create one of the greatest assets to political and policy campaigns: an energized public that is echoing and amplifying the campaign's own position.

This brief is a preliminary examination of the impact of the Internet on public affairs campaigns. A more detailed examination will be available later in the fall.

For more information about how the Internet is reshaping the rules for policy campaigns, please contact Alisa Ferguson.

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