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Campaign Communication

Are campaign consultants, and their techniques, of any use?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Political communication consultants (in their modern incarnation, an American invention) have become global celebrities. Political leaders in particular listen to the major ones with rapt attention, and their books and diaries tumble unto bookshelves with regularity. An example is Dispatches from the War Room: in the Trenches with Five Extraordinary Leaders by Stanley B. Greenberg. In the memoir, Greenberg, one of the most notable pollsters and campaign consultants of his generation, chronicles the campaigns he ran with Bill Clinton of the United States, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Tony Blair of Great Britain, Ehud Barak of Israel, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada of Bolivia, and many more. What is more, major documentaries and movies are being made about what these political communication consultants do. The most recent is Our Brand is Crisis (2015), starring Sandra Bullock and Bob Thornton. 

Not only are these consultants getting to work all over the world and earn container- loads of cash, their methods are spreading. And the methods are also influencing what other campaigns do, including efforts by social movements and civil society organizations worldwide. The challenge is more or less the same: how do you get citizens to make a move (vote, protest against injustices, support a good cause/reform efforts etc.)?

What explains advocacy success in setting global agendas? Comparing Tobacco v Alcohol and four other global advocacy efforts

Duncan Green's picture

Oxfam researcher/evaluation adviser Uwe Gneiting introduces a new set of case studies

It’s an age-old puzzle – why do some advocacy and campaigning efforts manage to influence the political agendas of governments, international institutions and corporations but others don’t? What explains the difference in attention, resource mobilization, and policy traction of some issues (e.g. anti-Apartheid, HIV/AIDS) compared to others (e.g. the limited success of gun control advocacy in the U.S.)?

The technical response to these questions is that it’s an evidence problem – issues gain traction if there is sufficient evidence regarding their severity, cause and an effective solution. But as has been discussed elsewhere (including on this blog), focusing on evidence alone neglects the role of power and politics in explaining which issues gain attention and policy traction and which ones don’t.

This was why a group of researchers (including me) recently published a set of studies that put forward a more nuanced explanation for the variation in advocacy effectiveness. The way we approached the task was to analyze and compare pairs of issues (we focused on global health) of similar types and harm levels but varying attention (newborn vs maternal mortality, pneumonia vs tuberculosis, and alcohol vs tobacco). We ended up with ten factors across three categories that in conjunction help to explain varying levels of advocacy success (see table below)

For Political Communication, the Age of Nerds and Big Data is Here

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Sophisticated campaign communication (an important part of political communication) is a field both invented and dominated by American practitioners and scholars. When I ask my associates in the field why this is so, the reason they usually give me is the sheer quantity and frequency of democratic elections in the American political system. Therefore, they point out, human and material resources have been poured into the science and the art of winning election campaigns.  What is important for our purposes is that  the practices of American political communicators tend to spread worldwide... like much else in American culture. Politicians in newly democratizing polities have for decades now invited American political consultants to help them run and win elections. Local specialists have also mushroomed, many of them trained by the American universities who offer amazingly good degrees in communication, particularly political communication. If you are interested in campaign communication as a global phenomenon, a good place to start is Fritz Plasser's Global Political Campaigning: A Worldwide Analysis of Campaign Professionals and Their Practices (2002).

My bet is that at least two aspects of the recently concluded presidential election campaign in the United States -- a spectacular showcase of political communication at work -- will prove influential globally. President Obama was re-elected and it was a big win, but for campaign communication two methods won big victories of their own and they are likely to be flattered with imitation worldwide. They are as follows: