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A Hard Sell

by Waqar Azeem Jappa

Communicating political and government initiatives to the public now requires a robust digital media strategy

Selling the policies and objectives of politicians and governments all over the world is hard. In Pakistan, it is 10 times harder. Unlike competitive industries like potato chips and colas—also not an easy market, but one that understands its audience and the utility of the best marketing communication strategies—selling politicians and government initiatives is a continuous struggle for strategists in Pakistan. Why?

A one-sentence answer would focus on low marketing budget, an absence of well planned image-building campaigns, and undue reliance on traditional media for visibility through press releases, tickers, and print media ads coupled with underutilized digital media platforms for government publicity; there is no formal advertisement policy for digital and entertainment channels as yet.

Making it even simpler, you won’t see government ads and campaigns on popular digital platforms such as YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, OLX, Daraz, Urdupoint, BBC Urdu, Dawn, and any number of similar entertainment, movie or music channels. This is the equivalent of chalking out Pakistan’s development plan without considering 50 percent of its women, or 65 percent of its youth, while relying primarily on 15 percent of its older population!

Communication strategists in the public sector need to understand that digital is cheaper, and ensures a wider audience with targeted and effective communication. Both U.S. President Trump’s ascent to the Presidency, and Narendra Modi’s re-election in India, are glaring examples of the wonders of digital media when used effectively for political marketing. Many digital media influencers believe that Pakistan’s incumbent government, which also banked heavily on digital media for its political campaigns and ultimate ascendancy to power, is starting to lose its luster and failing to effectively sell itself to the masses.

Let’s acknowledge that communication is the fuel of the modern world. Let’s also acknowledge that without lobbying and networking, projection of the government’s initiatives and policies to the citizenry—for whom it is apparently working so hard—can result in miscommunication and propaganda, creating potential threats to its legitimacy. We must also accept that the onslaught of digital communication, internet connectivity, smartphones, social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube—have revolutionized society and governance. Social media, especially, has transformed the traditional methods employed by governments for media management and public relations.

A look at the digital media landscape of Pakistan provides a lot of food for thought for political PR practitioners; repute managers; government-employed media strategists; corporate communication experts; students of mass communication; and similar stakeholders. According to the Global Digital Year Book 2020 by marketing agency We Are Social, out of its 218 million population, 165 million (75%) of Pakistanis have mobile phone connections with 73 million (35%) of them active internet users. Till January 2020, some 37 million people are regular social media users, with 98 percent of them using it through their mobile phones.

Popular social media platforms for Pakistanis are Facebook with 33 Million users; Instagram with 6.4 million; Twitter about 2 million; and a whopping 32.5 million (at least) frequently visit YouTube using their phones.

It is not an exaggeration to say that digital media is the new game changer. Subscriptions are on the rise every passing day and information spreads more quickly on digital media than it does via traditional media. Almost all the leading media conglomerates, political commentators, analysts, bloggers, vloggers, opinion makers and an Army of social media influencers have carved out their own digital spaces with a relatively good number of followers.

The “viral” phenomenon has now also far outweighed the Breaking News cliché. Videos of Uzma Khan in Pakistan and George Floyd in America are the two latest example of this phenomenon. As of late, it is digital media that predicts the success or failure of government initiatives, and makes or breaks the image of political leaders. Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, and Trump are two highly relevant examples of this: the former is constantly gaining, while the latter is badly losing the image battle.

Political events and information that used to take days to reach the public can now increasingly be viewed live from almost anywhere. Public Relations practitioners, and reputation and media managers, are branching out from managing tomorrow’s headlines in the print medium and on prime time bulletins for electronic media to dealing with the tweets, Facebook feeds and Instagram posts of the past five minutes. A day is fast approaching when technological changes would allow us real-time media and image management.

Believe it or not, continual communications management is the new reality of governance. Digital media marketing of government policies, initiatives, and image management of political leaders and top government functionaries based on research and authentic data is the way forward. In Pakistan, especially, what is needed for political communication is a paradigm shift that moves away from a reliance on conventional media and pivots toward digital media. Leaders must walk away from news or information-centric communication to more realistic, emotional and two-way communication while gauging the pulse of the public.

Powerful messages and political campaigns that people can personally associate with have the potential to remain in their memory for a longer period of time. Government initiatives coming from a third party in the form of a web series, short films, or documentaries might be more digestible for the masses than messages conveyed via the news. Trump: An American Dream, Modi: Journey of a Common Man; Toilet: A Love Story; Accidental Prime Minister; Becoming; and Pakistan’s newfound love for Turkish dizis Magnificent Century (known as Mera Sultan in Pakistan) and Ertugrul are examples of political communication done well, as no one can deny their political dimensions. Ertugrul, notably, has broken the YouTube record for most new subscribers to a channel since releasing in Pakistan last month.

Last but certainly not the least, let’s not forget that digital media is the new king of the world. Properly utilizing this thus far untapped arena of digital media, with all its details, protocols, targeted PR campaigns, and effective communication strategies, can go a long way toward achieving what has proven very elusive to Pakistanis so far—selling the government to the public effectively. Moreover, every public department should allocate a portion of its budget for digital marketing and communication. An early promulgation of an Advertisement Policy for Digital Media would be an excellent starting point.

Jappa is a communication strategist and freelance writer. He tweets @waqarazeemjappa

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