"Claimed" said a tweet on the ‘Keep Carmel’ Twitter feed last Thursday. Carmel Tebbutt had won the inner-Sydney seat of Marrickville by a tight 0.9 margin.
It signalled the end of a nearly two month long Twitter campaign which posted 370 tweets promoting the candidate’s achievements and future promises, engaged with the media, and rebutted the campaign of the Greens candidate Fiona Byrne who threatened Labor’s hold on seat.
What Keep Carmel twitter followers did not know is that the tweets were a "donation in kind" to Tebbutt’s election campaign from One Small Planet, which provides brands with 24 hour "live sentiment search, conversation mining, and real time response across multiple social media platforms".
One Small Planet is one of a group of businesses operating from the North Sydney office of Brad Keeling. Keeling was managing director of the mobile phone company One.Tel which collapsed in 2001 leaving creditors with a $240 million shortfall. In 2003, Keeling signed a deal with the Australian and Securities Commission admitting that he had breached his duties as a director. NSW Justice John Bryson found Keeling had committed "disturbingly serious failures" and accepted that he was contrite. The judge also remarked that "it would be a striking phenomenon if, after 10 years of disqualification, he ever attained management responsibilities again, and if he did it is to be expected that great care would be used by anyone who decided to give them to him".
Keeling spent several years overseas in London and Helsinki during which he set up the Slice Wireless Group, which "comprises four complementary mobile media solution businesses". In January 2010 he returned to Sydney announcing that he was "spinning off" the Slice business and focusing more on the new business, a "new live media centre". Keeling is now Head of Strategy and Business Development at One Small Planet.
Last Friday, the day after Tebbutt claimed Marrickville, another tweet appeared, this time in Brad Keeling’s personal Twitter account: "Spot the difference between Verity Firth’s #NSWvotes campaign & Carmel Tebbutt’s – @Keep_Carmel http://bit.ly/gX5yne".
The tweet linked to a case study posted on the One Small Planet site in which Keeling explains why his "unofficial" Keep Carmel campaign helped Tebbutt across the line in Marrickville — and why Verity Firth, who did not take up their offer, failed in Balmain.
Other tweets promoting the case study were sent out by One Small Planet employees including CEO Trish Van Tussenbroek, who worked with Keeling at One.Tel media. Social media marketer Mistress Mia tweeted to her nearly 8000 followers and before long the One Small Planet promotion had reached a large network of journalists, marketers, PR people and politicians.
The case study made it clear that Keeling had convinced Tebbutt’s team that social media was a valuable campaign tool — but they "were flat out keeping up with media relations and the usual hustle and bustle of campaign management" and "were not resourced to deal with social media". According to the study, Tebbutt’s own team could manage Facebook, but not a time-sensitive Twitter account.
This is where One Small Planet stepped in, with the "the unofficial Twitter campaign to ‘Keep Carmel". So how did it work? Keeling describes One Small Planet as operating like a call centre. Their business operates with a team of people lead by an account manager. Keeling was the manager on the Keep Carmel account, but had a team of people also working on it, monitoring tweets, for example. During the campaign, the team used "subject matter" from Tebbutt’s office, and checked with her on issues — but only responded to Twitter queries where it was "appropriate to do so", that is, where it would not give the impression that it was Tebbutt speaking.
The negative Twitter sentiment towards Tebbutt at the beginning of the campaign shifted dramatically to a very positive one as a result of the campaign, argues Keeling in the case study. Rather than voters being directly influenced by seven-odd tweets a day, he argues, by using hashtags to consolidate conversations, he says Twitter becomes like talkback radio: "Not everyone listening calls in but everyone listening hears those who do." The Twitter feed linked to campaign photos and radio interviews. Keeling himself live-tweeted from the Marrickville Town Hall during a debate between Tebbutt and Byrne and @Keep_Carmel engaged with Sydney Morning Herald Journalist Georgina Robinson (on Twitter @geerob) when she toured the seat live-blogging and tweeting ensuring that "there was a presence in the evolving story @geerob was posting to the Sydney Morning Herald".
Marrickville Labor Party campaign director NSW Upper House MP Penny Sharpe declined to answer any questions about the campaign other than to say: "the unofficial Twitter campaign was an experiment in how Twitter could be used in an electoral campaign."
As Labor deals with the election mop up, One Small Planet has been back at its core business of more conventional marketing. According to its website, One Small Planet’s other brands include free magazine Tradie Mag which "can be picked up in smoko sheds/delivered by our hot travelling Ladies", sports betting firm Bet 247, Harts Pub in the Rocks and the television show Country Matters. All these brands support each other through Facebook and Twitter. This week, One Small Planet has been tweeting for Key Pharmaceuticals’ headlice product.
But the Keep Carmel campaign raises some more serious issue about electoral funding.
After saying the Twitter service was a donation and it was all done "properly", Keeling later said it was "definitely a commercial arrangement". When asked about declaring it to the electoral office, he said he was not able to comment or discuss it as he did not know how it was classified from the [Tebbutt] campaign perspective. A confidential ALP source confirmed it was an "in-kind donation" of a service.
NSW electoral laws state that donations of services can be worth no more than $1000. It is clear that this campaign was worth far more than that.
Indeed, Keeling told New Matilda "such a campaign must be done full-time". He said it was a task that could not be undertaken "half-heartedly," and it would have been impossible for Tebbutt’s office to do it. Fiona Byrne had a Twitter account authorised by her campaign manager Hazel Blunden and staffed by two volunteers. The Byrne campaign, overwhelmed with work, barely tweeted in March.
Greens Democracy for Sale Director Norman Thompson told New Matilda, "If Carmel Tebbutt’s campaign accepted a large in kind donation from One Small Planet, it appears her campaign breached the NSW electoral law. The NSW Election Funding Authority should investigate this immediately."
Businesses trading or offering services in Australia need to be registered either as a business name or company. In addition, the electoral laws state that a donor needs to be registered to donate services to campaigns. One Small Planet does provide services but is not registered as a company or a business. CEO Trish Van Tussenbroek says this is because it is a division of private mobile applications company Slice Wireless but it will soon be split off into its own separate company. She told New Matilda that the connection with Slice Wireless is not included on the One Small Planet website because it is a totally different concept and is "essentially a trading name". She agrees the business is not currently registered but she expects it "will be by the end of the month".
Slice Wireless is a $133 million mobile company owned by a range of shareholders in Australia, Finland, the UK and the Czech republic. Keeling is a director of its wholly owned UK subsidiary which, according to its accounts, has not traded at all. UK company records show it is based at the address of media consultancy Response Media in London who said that Slice Wireless had rented space there previously but left without leaving contact details.
Slice Wireless shareholders include major investors in the gas industry and others who were previously involved in One.Tel. Keeling is not a director of the Australian company. New Matilda tried unsuccessfully to contact the directors, one of whom was previously involved in One.Tel.
Under NSW law, electoral expenditure on internet communication must be declared. However the laws have not yet been updated to include social media. While all broadcast advertisements must cease three days before the election, this does not apply to Twitter or Facebook.
The NSW Electoral funding rules also state that advertising must be authorised. So is Keep Carmel and other similar political marketing campaigns supplied by third parties to political parties advertising?
Keeling said the aim of Keep Carmel was to simply be a "well-informed advocate for Carmel’s campaign" and that at no point did they want to give the impression that they were speaking on Tebbutt’s behalf, but the "unofficial campaign" nevertheless had a whiff of deceptive marketing. Kelling admitted that "whether selling fast food or politicians, it is best to be an advocate for the campaign, rather the campaign itself". People following the #nswvotes twitter feed or retweets would not know it was ‘unofficial’ unless they visited the Keep Carmel home page. Keeling said it was "Marketing 101," adding that it was well-known that looking in from outside was effective marketing: "New media/real time web is a mix of pure PR and marketing/advertising, a combination of both."
Norman Thompson says there needs to be urgent clarification in the laws to take account of marketing initiatives like this one: "Politicians are using social media very effectively in their campaigns. Developments are occurring in this media much faster than governments can close loopholes. There must be an urgent review of ways to make all campaigns transparent so the public can be better informed."
New Matilda will be follow up these issues with the Electoral Funding Authority.
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