What relevance, if any, does the 2008 Obama campaign have in the political processes of developing countries? How, if at all, can modern media production techniques used by global leaders, like the BBC, be made useful to their counterparts in poor countries? There are obvious limits to transplanting knowledge and practices from one place to another, given all the differences. However, when it comes to insights regarding the potential influence of political communication on individual and social behavior, it is also possible to graft some of what’s been learned globally to homegrown ways of doing things. But those who know these environments best should do the grafting.
I recently attended a couple of sessions of a week-long workshop organized by George Washington University’s (GW) Graduate School of Political Management. Participants included elected officials, professional journalists, and political consultants from around ten Latin American countries. Most of the sessions were conducted in Spanish, and featured speakers and experiences from the region. But a few sessions were in English (simultaneously translated) and drew on good practices from the U.S. and the U.K. I thank the organizers for allowing me to sit in the sessions on the 2008 Obama campaign and communicating effectively through online media “on the cheap.” Worthy of note was how these sessions imparted lessons that were both grounded in real world experience and based on solid social scientific evidence. As regards the latter, it’s noteworthy how speakers kept technical jargon and theoretical terms to a refreshingly bare minimum.
In the first session, Senior Obama Advisor, Jim Margolis, laid out the strategic imperatives and tactics carried out by one of the most successful national campaigns in recent history. One of the most interesting parts of the session revolved around the integrated manner with which the campaign and its volunteers engaged potential voters. If the voter was found to be undecided in terms of candidate choice, contact information was forwarded to headquarters for a follow-up phone call. If successfully convinced over the phone, subsequent requests were made for small donations, then volunteer activities. Those who volunteered to call voters on behalf of the campaign were given, through a very simple smartphone application, real-time information on how many calls had been made over the past two hours, how many active callers there were at the moment, and how many calls the top caller in this group had made. The campaign created around 2,000 YouTube videos, which is nothing compared to the staggering 442,000 user-generated productions. The campaign had around 35,000 volunteer groups whose members organized 200,000 face-to-face meetings in support of the candidate.
I noticed how the campaign applied principles of persuasion, such as social proof and the appeal to consistency which undergirds such techniques as the “foot-in-the-door”. E.g., if convinced about the candidate, ask for a small donation, then ask for some volunteering time, etc. (see, for instance, Robert Cialdini’s book on tried and tested persuasion techniques). These efforts were applied over a combination of old and new communication and information sharing platforms, whether through a smartphone app, online video sharing service, or on-the-ground face-to-face organizing. And Margolis emphasized that efforts were consistently made toward creating a sense of community among volunteers.
In the second session, GW Prof. Jonathan Halls, formerly with BBC London, shared valuable tips on communicating effectively through online media and setting up a new media production studio for less than five hundred U.S. dollars. His talk ranged from painting a broad picture of shifting information environments to the finer details of buying cheap, but good, studio equipment. He also discussed differences among print, audio, and video, describing the types of information each is best suited to convey. For instance, whether over community radio or podcasts, aural communication is less ideal for detailed information but it is excellent for storytelling. Audio engages the imagination; “the theatre of the mind,” many have called it. Video is likely to cost three to four times more, and should be action-based and as short as possible. It is bad for complex subjects. The speaker put it bluntly: “If there’s no action, don’t waste your money.” Text is good for detail and analysis, but obviously not so much for action.
I have come across these types of “rules of thumb” before, as well as the minutiae of conditions under which they may or may not hold true. Although there’s a lot more nuance in the body of applied research than was presented during this session, I think there are situations in which professional training based on “rules of thumb” makes absolute sense, despite the protestations made by subject matter experts. This is particularly the case when we’re working with practitioners who already bring a lot of granular experience and knowledge to the table. They can gauge, perhaps better than most global experts, whether what has worked in other places might work in their own local contexts. I believe their perception of value is based on whether what they’re hearing reduces risk and uncertainty in making decisions that affect their immediate environments.
One crucial thing the speakers and the workshop organizers got right: lessons from the Obama campaign and on the effective use of new media were cast in general terms. Moreover, efforts were made to include components that are affordable in developing country contexts. Building a sense of community among volunteers and setting up a new media production studio for less than 500 USD are feasible for many medium to large scale organizations in low income environments.
The Graduate School of Political Management at GW organizes four or five of these workshops per year, on topics such as crisis communications, women in politics, political negotiation, and governance. I think most, if not all, participants are elected officials and senior practitioners from Latin America. The workshop agendas are built around the most recent and relevant experiences from the region as well as other countries likely to be of interest to participants. Their approach juxtaposes experience with the best we know about political behavior and public opinion, and helps participants digest complex information, evaluate it for themselves, and apply it should they so desire.
Photo credit: Flickr user kretyen