Mitt Romney wasn't about to wait for a "macaca" moment. In January, a potentially damaging video of the former Massachusetts governorand current GOP presidential hopefulappeared on YouTube, showing snippets of the conservative candidate in a long-ago debate with Ted Kennedy in which Romney sounded rather liberal. In response, Romney's campaign quickly uploaded a video response of its own. Whether or not the Romney riposte undid the harm caused by the original clip, it underscored a truth of American politics and business: Web video is a force that can no longer be ignored.
This new reality first crashed home last summer, when (now-former) Virginia Senator George F. Allen's use of the obscure slur "macaca" was caught on video and played relentlessly online for the duration of his campaign against challenger Jim Webb. The incident punctured Allen's nice-guy image, and his slow response to the damaging video helped erase both his large lead in the race and the Republican majority in the Senate.
The political lessons here apply to businesses as well: By using the Web, you can control your message without buying ad time or waiting for media coverage, you can respond quickly to events beyond your control, and you can put regular folks to work on your behalf at virtually no cost.
Up and down the political food chain, YouTube campaigning has become the new normal. Clips don't always appear first on YouTube, but they get there fast. This is how we spin now: Instead of calling a press conference for the titans of old media, Illinois Senator Barack Obama announced his presidential exploratory committee in a video that premiered at his Web site and was e-mailed to supporters. The New York Times quoted from his carefully crafted online message in its news article. Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson soon followed his example.
Another Democratic presidential contender, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, used the Web to preview, and then show in full, a January speech about Iraq he gave at New York City's Riverside Church. Networks and newspapers picked up his major themes, but now the entire video, including his homage to Martin Luther King Jr. and folksy southern inflections, is out there for anyone to see and hear, and will be for the duration of the campaign.
On the flip side, YouTube also hosts a not-very-flattering clip of Edwards getting his hair done before a television appearance. Edwards would be smart to get out in front of that one and make sport of himself, since his opponents will inevitably be doing so. And those opponents won't just be paid political operatives from other campaigns: Part of the medium's power is that anyone can post to and link these videos at their personal blogs, or e-mail them in bulk.
It's remarkable that, less than five years ago, an obscure Congressional hopeful named Tara Sue Grubb made headlines for being the first candidate to use a campaign weblog. Today the toolset has expanded considerablyand the Web may now be the key to winning the most powerful job on the planet.