It’s an election year, right? Forget the fact that, even at the best of times, this country is perpetually on political campaign mode. There is no issue that is not debatable in Kenya, including the mundane and gabble. Never mind that most of these debates hardly add much value to finding enlightened solutions to our collective problems.
Sorry, I digress! Election years in Kenya are similar to the glut of the wildebeest migration in the Mara. It is the season for all and sundry. Professionals and impostors alike come out of the woodwork in search of a quick buck. From body guards and transporters, to legal advisers and communication experts, there seems to be something for everyone. It is a case of making hay while the sun shines.
The closest I have come to working for a political campaign is a couple of months ago when someone tried to recruit me as the campaign director of a current governor who is seeking re-election on a Jubilee Alliance Party ticket. After doing a couple of trips trying to meet the aspirant in person with no success, I gave up and decided that this might not be my thing.
I mean, how do you work for a brand that you cannot see and feel? It reminds me of some employers who give you third party briefs, while the most effective method would be for you to meet the client directly in order to internalise his or her needs. That is how numerous PR jobs get botched. And, unfortunately, it is the hapless practitioner who takes the flak.
Now, there are many similarities between politics and PR. Both careers are based on creation of a positive image, and maintenance of that image in order to get buy-in and sustain the credibility of a brand. For this to be successful, however, it must be done by a professional who understands the intricacies of effective communication. But as things stand, political communication in Kenya is a free-for-all, with spin being the major criteria of engagement.
Even some major PR firms are contracted by political parties and politicians as a result of how well they can place their charge’s propaganda in the media. I am not implying that propaganda is not part of the game. It, indeed, is. But propaganda that gives false hope to the public and creates illusions is rather destructive. Further, communication that distorts facts by giving credibility to people already indicted in wrongdoing is a great disservice to the electorate.
Most probably, many candidates in the black book of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission have already engaged the so called spin doctors to paint them as white as snow in the run up to the 8th August polls. Make no mistake though, it works!
The gullible masses swallow the lies hook, line and sinker. We are aware of candidates who have now been rebranded (whitewashed) after being condemned as pariahs due to grave misdemeanours in public office, and they might just end up in Parliament.
This is the era of fake news and alternative facts. We saw how this played out in last year’s US elections where President Donald Trump’s campaign team was accused of twisting reality to scare and endear Trump to a certain section of the American society. Trump was accused of twisting and creating facts to prove certain points.
According to the Political Campaign Manual (A Step by Step Guide to Winning Elections) by J. Brian O’Day of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, campaign messages must be truthful and credible. According to O’Day, “the messaging needs to come from the values, practices, policies and history of the candidate. It cannot be inconsistent with the candidate’s background”.
The manual also advices that a candidate’s message should be believable, as those who make unrealistic promises simply add to voter apathy. Which could be the reason why there is increasing apathy in certain regions which have traditionally been viewed as strongholds for particular candidates or political parties in Kenya.
Th manual states that raising a candidate’s credibility does not equate to mudslinging your opponent. You do this by concentrating on the positive characteristics and popular stand on issues of your candidate, or by showing voters the negative characteristics of your opponents or their unpopular positions on issues.
Ultimately, it all boils down to ethics. PR specialists must ensure that their clients mean what they say. The Public Relations Society of Kenya (PRSK) needs more lobbying for the enactment of the PR Bill into law. This will give it the necessary powers to develop enforceable guidelines in such sensitive areas. Practitioners involved in promoting brands should ensure that truth prevails in all their messaging.
The writer is a communication consultant and public policy analyst. [email protected]