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Michael Kempner: Barack Obama guru tells business to get social

Michael Kempner, the PR agency boss and political fundraiser, is obsessed by the revolutionary impact of social media, as he explains to Gideon Spanier

Michael Kempner has brought his business savvy to the world of American politics for years, as a major Democratic Party fundraiser for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but he thinks business could learn from politicians too. The public relations agency boss from New Jersey, who has advised corporate clients such as Samsung, Deloitte and Subaru for nearly three decades, is obsessed by the revolutionary impact of social media.

Smart politicians from President Obama to New Jersey Senator Cory Booker have successfully embraced it – to such an extent that it has now got to the stage that those who have failed to master technology are at a serious disadvantage, says Mr Kempner on a visit to London. He thinks the same will increasingly apply to business leaders.

Mr Kempner cites the example of Mr Booker, who recently won election for the first time after building up a Twitter following of almost 1.5 million users. “He writes his own tweets, he interacts with his followers,” enthuses Mr Kempner. “This isn’t about the overthrow of Egypt. It’s about food stamps and the minimum wage.”

There is now huge potential for anyone “who understands how to use technology to create movements”, he adds. He has seen that phenomenon at first-hand as a member of the Obama for President National Finance Committee: Mr Obama’s 2012 re-election tweet, “four more years”, was famously retweeted half a million times by his 41 million followers.

So Mr Kempner has little doubt that chief executives and other business leaders should follow suit. “You must do it,” he declares. “I strongly believe in ‘the social CEO’. In most cases, CEOs and executives should be active in social media. But there must be a strategy. It can’t be ‘where they had dinner last night’.”

Mr Kempner founded his public relations firm, MWW, in New Jersey in 1986 and is expanding in Britain, where he has just bought Parys Communications, a boutique 12-strong agency with clients including Rupert Murdoch’s News UK and the BBC. It made sense to set up in London – “it’s the capital of Europe” – although it took a long time to find a firm that shared his vision.

Parys founder Patrick Herridge has already rebranded his agency as MWW and is moving office from Putney in south London to Soho in the West End later this month.

Mr Kempner’s political fundraising work is just a sideline. Running MWW, one of the top five independent PR agencies in America with about 230 staff, is the day job.

He sold the agency to US advertising group Interpublic, a rival to Britain’s WPP, in 2000. But he bought it back a decade later and much prefers the independent life as he can focus on clients and employees, and avoid internecine strife within a bigger group.

He is scathing about the £23bn mega-merger of America’s Omnicom and France’s Publicis, which he thinks will result in client and corporate conflict and the merger of some of their agencies. “I believe it is a boon to everybody but them.”

Mr Kempner, who turned 56 yesterday, continues to be amazed at how digital content is changing the media landscape. “The business has never been more interesting than it is now.”

He sees, through the eyes of his children, how new entrants such as news-lite BuzzFeed and gossip site Gawker now challenge established media outfits such as The New York Times. “To my kids, there’s no difference between them,” he says. “What will be the trusted brands of the future? Will they care if it’s The New York Times? I wouldn’t assume the trusted brands of today will be tomorrow.”

The relative decline of the big TV networks and newspapers and the simultaneous rise in the power of brands – his clients, who can now create their own digital content – has been a game-changer.

“Native advertising is a significant part of what we do,” he says, explaining the trend for clients to make paid-for content that blends in with editorial. Some critics argue that native advertising undermines editorial, but Mr Kempner says consumers do not mind the blurring, so long as it is clear what is promotional content. “Obviously you must disclose it. If you don’t, people will care. They don’t care if you do.”

MWW’s growing role helping brands to make content – from videos to articles and infographics – is driven in part by the fact that digital is measurable, so it is possible to see what is performing well. “Content is king. Data is its queen,” says Mr Kempner. “We will get more and more into micro-targeting and influencer targeting – they were very much the tools of the Obama campaign.”

He has only done fundraising, not PR, for the Obama team, but his fascination with politics continues. MWW has just done an analysis of the real-time Twitter reaction to Mr Obama’s “State of the Union” address earlier this week. “Our world moves at the speed of Twitter,” he says, pointing to an infographic showing how sentiment rose and fell during the speech. It is like a “barometer” of how the nation felt, he says.