The Purple Revolution: Lessons From Mayor Nenshi

|, September 1, 2016

Our media relations strategy frankly became a social media strategy.”
–  Stephen Carter, Nenshi Campaign Strategist

In 2004, Naheed Nenshi ran for a seat on Calgary’s city council and lost. Six years later, he was elected Mayor of that same city after a shocking come-from-behind victory and re-elected three years after that with almost 75 per cent of the vote. A decade after his failed bid for city council, he received the biennial World Mayor award.

Mayor Nenshi’s meteoric rise is a compelling story for a number of reasons; the most interesting, from a communicator’s perspective, being the unorthodox campaign tactics he employed to win the 2010 election against far more heralded opponents.

The Nenshi story is, if nothing else, an omen of the need to shift away from traditional campaigning in order to have success in today’s political landscape. Without purchasing any newspaper advertising, and little in the way of television spots, his team developed an online strategy and worked to fully integrate every aspect of the campaign into their digital efforts. They utilized the funds in their advertising war chest to purchase Facebook ads, a tactical decision reflective of how Canadians now obtain information; spending their time online rather than sitting in front of a television set.

We used social media like a telephone, they used it like television. That made the difference.”
–  Chima Nkemdirim, Mayor Nenshi’s Chief of Staff

Further to the advertising component, he took to social media in order to connect with the electorate, creating social engagement by responding to questions and delving into the conversation online. While most politicians use social media as a forum to make announcements, Nenshi turns to the same medium in order to start discussions.

His campaign was aptly described as “viral,” and was a display of grassroots advocacy in which he mobilized his supporters. They would organize “coffee parties” in their homes, granting him a stage on which to share his ideas and engage in debate with potential voters. Election day saw many of those potential voters turn up to the polls, resulting in a significant increase in voter participation from previous elections.

As our Chairman & CEO, Bruce MacLellan, recently noted in his op-ed for the Globe and Mail, the Environics 2016 CanTrust index reveals a direct correlation between social media activity and trust. Mayor Nenshi is one of the most frequently referenced examples of social media-savvy politicians, with a recent New York Times article dubbing him “A Mayor Fluent in Twitter.” There is little doubt that his Twitter-proficiency has done wonders to enhance his visibility, something he is very cognizant of: “People tell me: ‘You’re everywhere.’ I don’t know if I am everywhere more than the previous mayor. I’m just loud about it.”

 Nobody else has my password,”
  His Worship Naheed Nenshi, Mayor of Calgary

 While consistent activity on social media networks can certainly create the appearance of accessibility, Nenshi’s team sought to protect his air of authenticity by ensuring his signature candor and witty banter weren’t watered down by excessive tweeting on his account from anyone else. That means that all of the nearly fifty-thousand tweets since his account was opened in April 2009 have originated from the Mayor himself, truly unusual for a politician in the era of social media managers and strategists. His accessibility and responsiveness, along with his authenticity, are the cornerstones of his personal brand. 

Another of his strengths lies in his willingness to share the limelight; as my colleague Lorna Freeman worded it in her excellent piece on Gord Downie: “If you want to be heard, you need to make your audience the star.” Mayor Nenshi’s penchant for shedding light on the daily lives of Calgarians by retweeting good deeds by regular citizens, or praising public servants for their hard work, goes a long way toward solidifying his popularity.

His staffers frequently sport purple articles of clothing or accessories to display their commitment to the brand, and the 2013 election results are a testament to the support he enjoys in his city. He might just be the first politician to ever be accused of working too hard, with his non-stop activity during the 2013 floods in Calgary spawning the #NapForNenshi hashtag. In the constantly evolving world of marketing and communications, it would stand to reason that future politicians should elect to take a page out of Mayor Nenshi’s book as they seek to cultivate their own brand identity.

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