PR & Communications Opinion South Africa

Effective communication essential to election campaigning

The general election campaign is barely underway and election fever, characterised by mudslinging, flaring tempers, panicking, promises and expectations, has just started, with more fireworks expected to come as the election date comes closer. The development of an effective communication strategy is probably the most difficult and necessary part of an election campaign process.
Effective communication essential to election campaigning

Behind the scenes, political parties are busy plotting strategies, building war chests and marshalling resources for the country's fourth general election. There is a lot of communication and public relations hysteria in the corridors of political parties' headquarters right now. Campaigns always matter during elections. But, in the current context - when the opposition parties are so close in opinion polls - effective campaigns are absolutely crucial.

To most people, the words "election or voting" conjure up images of long queues, political patronage, boring messages, empty promises, and empowering candidates to be rich. The perceptions that politicians are only interested in the views and aspirations of the public when an election approaches and that their campaigns are specifically targeting those who happen to live in marginal constituencies pose a huge challenge to their campaigns.

Losing faith

People seem to be losing faith in politics. Fewer people are willing to vote, fewer people are joining new political parties, and levels of trust in political institutions are declining. Citizens doubt their politicians' motives and are cynical about whether they genuinely represent voters' concerns, wishes and aspirations.

The pre election period challenges political parties to convince voters that their vision, values, principles, convictions, and aspirations are answers to the country's current and future challenges and opportunities.

The development of an effective communication strategy is probably the most difficult and necessary part of an election campaign process. To be effective, election communication should be systematically planned, implemented and coordinated.

Political parties and their candidates are desperately looking for ways to get the attention of the voting publics amid all the distractions of modern life. When it comes to election campaign communications, politicians are guilty of three crimes - they demand the media to do the dirty job for them, use advertisements where effective public awareness, personnel contact and consultation are best suited for the job, and usually produce bad advertisements and communications messages.

Appeal to the voting public

Candidates have to be packaged, presented and promoted to appeal to the voting public. It's not just about dressing well, rhetoric, body language and eloquence - candidates also need to communicate a message that is characterised by consistency, credibility, concern, compassion, caring and commitment. Communication is about messages that are unambiguous and that recipient can readily, confidently, accurately and clearly perceive the intent of the sender.

For any political message to be well received, it must in one way or another connect emotively with its target audience. Candidates' contact with the public should inspire, enthuse, engage and give the public a sense of trust, respect and hope.

In most cases, politicians meet the public on their own terms, in their own ways and to tell them what they like, what they intend doing and how they will improve their lives. The general rule is that a good campaign strategy should stress the positives and solutions and ignore or downplay the negatives and problems. The myth that negative campaigning can generate interest and effective coverage for candidates is wrong and self-destructive. Their campaign messages should communicate strengths within their parties, and solutions to the current pressing political, economic and social issues.

Attract attention

South Africa is stuck in a number of interlocking crises, namely broken families, communities and society; soaring poverty, unemployment and crime; a pervasive air of public corruption; rising racial animosity; battered democratic institutions; and looming economic problems ahead. In a country where Government is perceived to be uncaring and elitist, a campaign's communication message which says, “I am one of you. I'm willing to listen. I'm willing to work with you. I will prioritise the interests of the nation,” can attract the attention of the masses.

The fact is that every housewife wants to see her food basket a little heavier, every citizen is hungry for peace and security, every ordinary man wants employment, every business expects an economic friendly environment, every youth dreams of a bright future, and every poor citizen is in dire need of basic services that are accessible, available and affordable. The most powerful fundamental of an election communication is to continually telling the masses what they want to hear and the ability to nail down local issues.

Some political parties start their campaigns without having a media strategy and plan. Media has the power to shape public opinion and make or break political ambitions.

Some politicians decide to ignore the media because of lack of trust. Some engage the media to voice their views and visions without being willing to give detailed explanations and answer journalists' questions.

Some are so arrogant that they expect respect and royal treatment from the media. When that is not forthcoming, they blame it on anything from racism, cheap journalism and jealousy to lack of understanding of the bigger picture and hidden agendas.

Rely too much

Other political parties rely too much on the media and treat reporters like campaign workers. They are then being surprised when their communication messages are transmitted out of context or misquoted.

Campaign advertisements are some of the traditional means used by candidates to communicate their messages. However, when it comes to these, political parties are guilty of producing bad, boring, ineffective and irrelevant messages.

A combination of billboards, television, radio, press, posters, live debates, emails, cellphones, slogans, music, events and door-to-door campaigns can be effective in a country with widespread coverage and diverse community such as SA. Only an alien, newly arrived to planet earth from outer space, will be ignorant of the fact that black people love to dance and love to sing and do both with distinction.

Political battles are fought at a local level where youth dominates, and therefore young people should be central in creating and driving campaigns at grassroots level. They should be trained and taught on how to be effective and need to be made to understand that they are an important part of their parties' strategy to win the election.

Lastly, I encourage my country men and women to vote in numbers in the this year's election. Who should they vote for? My humble advice is that they should vote for democracy, development, peace, unity, non-racism, non-sexism and prosperity.

About Thabani Khumalo

Thabani Khumalo is a researcher, writer and commentator with various radio stations and newspapers and MD of Think Tank Marketing Services, a marketing, communication and media consultancy. Contact him on +27 (0)83 587 9207, tel +27 (0)31 301 2461 or email ten.asmoklet@dtsy.smtt.
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