Persuade - Values, policies, and attack communications

Last week I introduced the concept of there being three phases of political communications - Persuade, Participate, and Mobilise. Today I'm going to drill down into the first of these - Persuade - which in New Zealand's election cycle makes up the bulk of what you've seen over the past three years. Just the weekend been you will have seen these played out around the country too with hoardings going up around the country from midnight on 22 July.

The primary purpose of Persuade communications is, as the name suggests, to persuade you to vote for a given candidate or party. They're all about building the narrative around why choice A is better than choice B, and convincing you to make that choice, or to put you off the other choice. Persuade captures the who, why, and what of politics:

  • Who is a candidate or party? (Identity)
  • Why are they running? (Values)
  • What are they proposing to do? (Policies)

Broadly speaking, Persuade communications are made up of three themes. These are, in order of importance:

  1. Values and identity
  2. Policies
  3. Attack

I've listed their priority in these way as in my experience, and supported by some academic insights, these tend to be the factors that sway a voter when they're deciding who they want to vote for. There's a reason why personality politics have become the norm in our highly media saturated world; it's because values and identity are the primary drivers of voter behaviour.

Values and identity

Voters want to know if a candidate or party shares their values and whether they can identify personally with them. This is one thing that Sir John Key did phenomenally well across a long period of time. Political commentators often talk about about "Middle New Zealand", what they're referring to is a large swathe of the country who generally share the same values and personal identity. It was this group of New Zealanders who Sir John Key, and the National Party, have largely monopolised the vote of since 2008. I think the whole point about values and identity being more important than policies was nicely summed up by the brilliant NZ Swing Voters Against Dogmatic Party Affiliated Memes Facebook page recently:

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If you look at a politician like Winston Peters, it's doubtful whether his supporters know what NZ First's policies are other than the Super Gold Card. However, they believe that his anti-immigrant and economic nationalist rhetoric aligns with their own values that hark back to a largely imagined "golden era" for New Zealand from their youth. They identify with Winston Peters as someone similar to them, and so vote for him.

There's been three pieces of digital content recently that are perfect examples of values and identity communications. The first was the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand's Great Greens campaign in April which was all about highlighting the diverse range of values, issues, and lifestyles that Green Party supporters have in common. National followed with their own piece squarely focused at linking Bill English's value and identity with that of Middle New Zealand with Let's Get Together. Labour has been the most recent with their first campaign ad which attempts to soften Andrew Little's often harsh public image by showing him in family and relaxing settings, as well as throwing in a bit of policy and leveraging Jacinda Ardern's popularity for good measure.

All of these pieces are about highlighting the values that a party or candidate stands for, and promoting them as being someone that voters can identify with as empathising with them and their concerns.

Policies

While policy communications do often sadly play second fiddle, they're still important. Think about 2005 when a resurgent Don Brash nearly led National to victory over Helen Clark's Labour. Labour's interest free student loan policy was credited with ensuring a significant youth turn out for them and seeing off that challenge and putting Labour in the box seat for post-election coalition negotiations.

The party in government and opposition usually approach policy communications differently over our Parliamentary term. A party in government needs to be constantly promoting the good things it's doing with its time occupying the Treasury benches. Whereas the opposition are creating their own narrative over that period about why those measures aren't working so that come election campaign season, they're ready to announce solutions to a receptive public.

Getting policy communications wrong can also undermine your values and identity messaging. Nothing illustrates this better than Theresa May and the Conservative's disastrous u-turn on the dementia tax. In an instant May lost her credibility as a decisive leader which drastically undermined all the values and identity work the Conservatives had done.

Where you'll see policy communications really ramp up is from early August through to the start of advance voting as parties announce policies every other day. While the values and identity content will continue in the background, you should notice a switch to promoting the policies they're announcing, especially as they attempt to sell their ideas directly to voters rather than relying on traditional media participants to relay their announcements for them.

Attack

Despite some holier-than-thou claims out there, attack communications do work to influence who people are going to vote for. That being said, they need to be used carefully and sparingly. In New Zealand we've typically opted for a humour based approach rather than the more outright negative stuff seen overseas. National recently did this using a clip from the AM Show where Paula Bennett made light of the fact that Labour's billboards feature both Andrew Little and Jacinda Ardern. Back in 2014 National's theme was the idea of Labour, the Greens, and the Internet Party rowing in opposite directions in their boat.

Our left wing parties have taken a more indirect approach, with the Labour Party linked Backing the Kiwi Meme churning out regular meme based attack pieces, as does the Freshly Picked Green Memes, both of which have much largely Facebook audiences than their equivalent right wing pages.

Attack doesn't always work though. Again the United Kingdom's election is a good example of this, where the Conservative's relentless attacks on Jeremy Corbyn's links to the I.R.A. and Hamas were to little effect, especially as Labour turned out a massive youth vote for them. The reason why these weren't successful I think is largely due to the fact that the people who this line of attack was most likely to resonate with were already voting Conservative, whereas those aged 18 to 32 largely didn't live through the Troubles in Northern Ireland or Palestinian linked terror attacks, and so they didn't put much stock in them, instead judging the Jeremy Corbyn who was in front of them then and there.

An equivalent example in New Zealand has been Labour and the Greens endless use of the neo-liberal attack line, or National and ACT's use of Fortress New Zealand. The negative experiences of Fortress New Zealand and the upheavals that came with liberalising the economy were issues that largely played out through the 1980s and early 1990s. They're upwards of 25 years ago and there's a new generation coming to the polling booths this year who aren't moved by attacks based on conjuring up ghosts of the past.

The impact of social media

At a fundamental level social media hasn't changed the core themes of Persuade content. All the things that have underpinned political messaging Where it has had an impact is in the ability to reach and target more people so that you can get that messaging in front of a larger audience. When I talked about Middle New Zealand earlier, it's remarkably easier to identify and advertise to that audience on Facebook based off what our most popular interests are. These are usually brands that you'd typically identify as being integral to New Zealand identity. It's things like Whittaker's Chocolates, Air New Zealand, the All Blacks, even imported brands like McDonald's, KFC, and other household names all feature. Keep in mind that this interest targeting is on top of using geographic and demographic targeting too.

While Facebook's audience targeting in New Zealand isn't as refined as it is overseas, this ability to micro-target audiences on a massive scale at a very cost-effective rate has meant that candidates and parties are able to tell their story and persuade people to vote for them on a much larger scale than could ever be achieved through face-to-face, direct mail, phone calls, or even email.

As I alluded to in the Attack section, social media has also transformed the way attack communications are carried out too. The ability for parties and their supporters to create Facebook pages, Twitter handles, or their own websites, is now easier than ever, especially when you think of memes as a form of content. With all the meme generating websites available, this type of content is no longer the preserve of those with graphic design nous and tools, rather anyone with an idea for a meme can turn it into reality in a matter of minutes, and see if it finds legs in the public arena. If it fails, they can always rinse and repeat as often as they like.

Thankfully New Zealand hasn't yet seen anything on the scale of professional trolling as detailed in the New York Time's report "The Agency" which reveals the covert operations of Russian state-sponsored trolls. That's not to say that it isn't happening here, rather if it is it's on a small scale and doesn't make an impact on the mainstream discourse as similar events have done in the United States. In fact the NZ Herald's Kirsty Johnston recently did a very insightful piece on the world of New Zealand's alt-right and their plans to influence the election, which included ideas around using social media.

In the next blog I'll look at the Participate phase of political messaging, and how campaigns are using social media and digital channels to get donations, grow their membership, and crucially get volunteers to help get their messages out.