Elections and campaigns in the information age

It’s election season in the region, okay, not quite, but there is a ‘fierce’ presidential campaign ongoing in Kenya ahead of polls in August; here, at home, the stage is ready for a showdown as the incumbent party, RPF seeks mandate renewal to lead; in both countries, candidates face the same challenge, that of communicating to distracted audiences.

It’s election season in the region, okay, not quite, but there is a ‘fierce’ presidential campaign ongoing in Kenya ahead of polls in August; here, at home, the stage is ready for a showdown as the incumbent party, RPF seeks mandate renewal to lead; in both countries, candidates face the same challenge, that of communicating to distracted audiences.

I often see scenarios where there is talking without communication, performance without attention, preaching without participation and sadly, in all scenarios, speakers think they’ve done a great job delivering when in actual sense, the room was full but void of audience.

 

Ages ago, political campaigns used to be easy, up until when the information age was ushered in, marking the beginning of a fierce competition for attention, consequently disrupting traditional communication, for everyone.

 

Today, any communication strategist worth their paycheck must know how to deal with social media platforms such as twitter, Instagram, Snap-chat, WhatsApp and Facebook otherwise they are simply posturing in their roles.

 

A lot has changed that you can’t campaign in 2017 the same way you campaigned in 1978. Then, audiences were easy to locate by gathering them at the boma grounds, buying plenty of radio talk-time, placing press adverts or producing colorful television commercials.

During a rally at the boma ground in the 70s, candidates were sure to grab the attention of the audience and retain it throughout the session; for great orators, they would even invoke emotions and capture hearts almost literally as words shot straight into the brains of electorates.

It was the same at music concerts, where fans would sing and dance along the performer; those were the days when idioms such as ‘letting my hair down’ truly made sense and in proper context; today, it is all pretext.

Speakers have to deal with the pretentious attention of their audiences. A participant in the front row will be vigorously shaking their head, as if in agreement with the speaker, when in actual sense they are texting back to a WhatsApp group.

You go to a music concert, and instead of paying attention to being entertained, a reveler is all over the place taking selfies to update their phantom followers on Instagram, Snap-Chat, Twitter and Facebook…and recently, WhatsApp status. It is insane.

In other countries where the electorate is still predominantly composed of old folk from the 40s up to 70s, there is a good chance at communicating the old way and succeeding at it.

But in countries where the electorate is mostly composed of Generation Y (people born during the 1980s and 90s), campaign communication strategists better be armed with efficient techniques to attract attention, retain it enough to engage and finally connect for action.

The complexity of communicating with members of Gen. Y explains why most young people really don’t vote or participate in political engagements; campaigners have not only failed to attract their attention, and when they do, it is not long enough to allow for meaningful engagement resulting in connecting for action (voting).

For political parties to grow their following and voting base they must connect with the growing constituency of generation Y and that means entering into those online platforms with chat rooms where millennials like to hangout.

It is possible that people will physically go out to attend campaign rallies. But as long as they have their smart phones fully charged and bundles fully loaded, they will still be engaging in a remote conversation ongoing somewhere online.

I just noted that membership for the ‘rogue’ Kenyan Facebook page, ‘Kilimani Mums and Dads Uncensored’ just hit half a million members, a quarter of whom joined in the last ten days to watch a fierce online fight between the page’s Kenyan members and their Ugandan counterparts.

The fight was a major distraction of the electorate from the actual ongoing ‘fight’ for the presidency between incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta and archrival Raila Odinga.

In nutshell, while political campaign messages are likely to dominate offline conversation, the challenge for political party communication strategists is how to drive their candidates’ messages to the top of social media timelines and into online chat-rooms to reach Gen-Y voters.

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