Frustrated by the search for a backer for their high-tech project, a group of students created a Web site to grab Angela Merkel's attention. It worked -- and gave Germans a direct line to their top elected official.
The days of dropping letters to one's elected officials in the mail may be numbered
Caveh Valipour Zonooz and his fellow business students had come up with a project, they had a patent in their names, they just needed to find a sponsor. An American investor had shown some interest, but that wasn't what they were after. They wanted to give Germany a shot. But their efforts, including appealing to Chancellor Merkel, led only to a form letter response.
So Zonooz could hardly believe his ears when he heard one of Merkel's weekly podcasts in early September. She lamented the fact that the MP3 and fax were created in Germany, but the first devices using the technologies went into production abroad. And then she announced a multi-billion euro plan to help innovative high tech ideas make their way to the marketplace.
"I wanted to jump right into the monitor and say, 'We have great ideas, we have a patent, we're here!'" said Zonooz.
But the chancellor's subordinates had already given him and his friends the brush-off. How could they get the message to Merkel? The answer came after several busy weeks of writing, designing and programming. On Oct. 3, the day Germany celebrates the country's reunification, they went "straight to the chancellor" with the Web portal of the same name, "Direkt zur Kanzlerin."
Too much ruckus
The site quickly became popular
Visitors to the portal can send text, audio or video contributions in which they pose a question to Chancellor Merkel. Within weeks, tens of thousands of people had visited the site and national media had been reporting on it.
The ruckus was apparently too much for the chancellor -- or her PR advisors -- to resist. Three weeks after the site went online, the government's information office told Zonooz they would, on Merkel's behalf, respond to three of the public's questions per week.
Since then, the site has been refined. Anyone can still pose questions, but now users can also vote for those they would most like to see the chancellor answer. Zonooz and the other 20 volunteers who work on the site with him send the top three questions to Merkel's PR office each week, and each week they get the promised responses.
The portal has gotten half a million clicks in the two months it has been up and running, and 30,000 people have voted for questions to ask Merkel, Zonooz said.
Hip but not unique
"The site has picked up momentum because they got attention by associating themselves with Angela Merkel's podcast," said Christoph Bieber, a political scientist at the University of Giessen's Center for Media and Interactivity. "So they got attention from offline media and organized some outreach, and they've become hip."
Merkel's podcasts are called "Die Kanzlerin Direkt" -- "the chancellor directly"
But it's not the first project of its kind, Bieber pointed out. National elections in 1998 and 2005 had already spawned sie-schreiben-dir.de ("They're writing you"), a Web site that allowed people to start an online discussion with candidates for office in their election precincts, and ich-gehe-nicht-hin.de ("I'm not going to the polls"), a site on which likely non-voters could explain why they didn't plan to vote.
Last week one of the questions competing for a top slot on Direkt zur Kanzlerin asked why the chancellor didn't respond personally. By the end of the week though, it had received too few votes to actually be submitted to Merkel's PR folks.
Zonooz, too, is disappointed Merkel doesn't make time to respond to her citizens' queries herself. "On the other hand, I'm happy that something comes at all," he said. But she could at least act as if she had done it, he added.
Soon in a country near you?
The site's popularity has gone beyond Germany's borders, and Austrian, Swiss, French and Polish students have contacted the German group to get tips on starting similar portals in their own countries. And an American version is also in the works, Zonooz revealed.
"Straight to the president!" he said. "I assume that Americans are even more open to such things."