Saturday, June 8, 2013

GOP gets its tech on

SINCE the 2012 presidential election, and despite a 5-million-vote drubbing at the polls, there’ve been any number of signs that the Republican Party Just Didn’t Get It — didn’t grasp the gravity and frequency of their missteps in an election that revealed the emergence of a new demographic calculus in America.

We won’t enunciate all of them here; the blessed loyal readers of this blog among you know what they are. But one of the biggest GOP misreadings of the American electorate in 2012 was an inability to appreciate and capitalize on the power of social media and digital technology, and its vast reach into segments of the population the Republican Party needs like a drowning man needs a lifeguard.

This week we got an indicator that that’s about to change.

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Jennifer Van Grove of CNet reported on Wednesday that the Republican National Committee, the organization tasked with taking charge of how the GOP makes itself matter to the American people, has hired a former Facebook manager as its first chief technology officer. The Huffington Post also reported on the hiring on Wednesday.

Andrew Barkett, 32, a former FB engineering manager, assumes the new role “meant to provide the party with much-needed expertise in the digital realm and help it develop relationships in the tech sector,” Van Grove reported.

“It's essential that the Republican Party has the resources to drive voter turnout as we look toward the elections of 2014, 2016 and beyond,” Barkett said in a statement obtained by CNet.

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THIS WAS no lucky hire who dropped out of the sky. The need for the new position was outlined in the party’s Growth & Opportunity Project manifesto and blueprint released months ago. Barkett, apparently, is the point person the GOP needs, someone “whose experience and background sends a strong and immediate signal that we are serious about growing our digital and tech operations ...”

The immediate objective: to “identity, recruit and hire a working group of data scientists, tech and digital advocates to build a structure that can eventually be deployed during the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race ...”

With Barkett’s background, this is certainly a mission: possible. The Huffington Post reported that Barkett, earned a political economy degree from University of California-Berkeley, in 2002 and a masters’ in business administration from the University of California-Davis in 2009. He was a manager at Google for two years.

Van Grove reported that Barkett joined Facebook in January 2011 and took charge of engineering teams responsible for scaling FB mobile infrastructure, messaging, and its recently-redesigned News Feed component. Before Facebook, Barkett was senior director of engineering for Livescribe, a company that makes a paper-based computing platform for electronic note-taking.

Clearly, the man’s got the goods. A source with early knowledge of the hiring told HuffPost that “[t]his guy is obviously in a different mold. This guy is actually from the engineering side. If I’m looking at it from the RNC’s perspective, getting somebody who is really an engineer and has been doing this on the tech side makes a lot of sense.”

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IT’S OBVIOUSLY a shot across the bow of the Democratic Party 18 months before the midterms. The deeper question for voters will be: What’s behind it? In 2012, the Republican Party lost the messaging war, but only partly because of the messenger — the avenue of communication. More problematic, then and now, is the message itself.

Still grappling with woeful poll numbers among Latino voters, African Americans, women, younger voters and disaffected independents — the coalition that ushered President Obama to a second term — the Republicans face a problem that improved social and digital skills don’t really address. The memes of inward-looking, mean-spiritedness and 47 percent selfishness have attached to the Republican Party’s persona like barnacles to a boat, and all the digital prowess in the world won’t change that.

And there’s something just as important as outreach to those outside the tent: finding common cause among the true believers, and ending the intraparty punch-ups that have characterized the GOP since before the election. The Republicans can’t hope to reposition themselves for the American people until they reposition themselves for themselves.

Barkett’s bona fides loudly announce themselves, and there’s every good reason to think the Republican Party will mount a more robust, less self-centered strategy in the social and digital realms next year, and in 2016. But the rubber will meet the road sooner rather than later. The only thing worse than not having a solid, full-fledged social and digital strategy is having one that doesn’t send a transformative message to the people that strategy was developed to reach.

Image credits: Barkett: Corrin Rankin for Redwood City City Council/Facebook, via CNet. Facebook logo: © 2013 Facebook. 

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