Political strategy

Will Labour's water tax cost them the election?

Despite Labour and Jacinda Ardern's spectacular rise in the polls over the past week, National and Bill English don't need to panic. Other than National continuing to focus on New Zealand's economic success, Jacinda's announcement of a water tax on commercial water users might just, in combination with the threat the Green Party poses to regional infrastructure projects, cost Labour their chance of forming the next government.

On the surface Jacinda Ardern's announcement that Labour will introduce a commercial water tax seems like a sensible one. People generally didn't seem thrilled about overseas bottling companies paying next to nothing to bottle up water and ship it offshore. Had the tax been targeted at them, it mightn't have ticked all the boxes for environmental groups, but it would have effectively scratched an itch that was bothering New Zealand.

The problem was Labour not only want to extend the tax to all commercial water users, including farmers who they've hit with a double whammy of plans to introduce new restrictions on farming methods without lifting the prohibitions on technology (like genetically modified organisms) that could help achieve this.

What Labour also assumed was a sensible policy move of saying that they won't commit to a tax figure on water until after the election when they meet with stakeholders, has turned out to be a terrible political move. It's already being seen by our primary sector as a disingenuous ploy to avoid a hard conversation about it on the campaign trail. It stinks of being both a policy that has been poorly thought out and of leaving the door open for this to become a massive tax on agricultural activity.

Labour has left the door open for National severely punish them not only in provincial New Zealand, but also in the mortgage beltway. To illustrate this, just look at how in just a few hours after the announcement, Labour had already lost control of the framing of the announcement:

Notice a theme? Water tax, water tax, water tax. Labour's "royalty" is already framed as a not only a tax, but a tax that will decimate our farmers and provincial economies, as well as hitting mortgage belt Middle New Zealand in the pocket with higher prices for dairy and produce.

In my mind, National there are three things National needs to do from this:

  1. Make a commitment to provincial New Zealand that National won't tax the agricultural sector for water use and promote the hell out of it before Winston Peters and New Zealand First can get in.
  2. Run a campaign targeting those provincial electorates pointing out the threat to their livelihoods if Labour won and did introduce the water tax combined with the threat the Greens could also pose if they forced a Labour government to cancel crucial irrigation and regional infrastructure projects.
  3. Target the Middle New Zealand mortgage belt with a campaign pointing out the potential and significant price rises to everyday (and healthy!) foodstuffs that the combination of Labour's water tax and other policies could have.

If you doubt this approach will work, take a look at the Mediscare campaign that the Australian Labor Party ran in their 2016 election. Despite some pretty dubious claims made and methods used by the ALP, it's widely credited with helping bring Bill Shorten within a whisker of an unprecedented victory. The advantage National has in this regard is that, unlike the ALP, Jacinda and Labour have made the commitment that water will be taxed, and left the door wide open for speculation about the potential impact of that.

This is where social media can play an important role in turning around this type of policy attack content very quickly so that you're capitalising on the issue being fresh in people's minds. Already National's Nathan Guy has enjoyed amazing success by posting a video of his fantastic speech to the House from Wednesday's General Debate to Facebook. In less than 24 hours the video has already been watched by 43,000 people, shared 412 times, and has resonated hugely well with those involved in the primary sector.

Given that National doesn't want to make the mistake that Labour and Helen Clark did in 2008 of going after the personality and popularity of the opposition leader, this type of wedge issue not only ties in perfectly with their overall narrative. National want's to tell people that they're the party that's delivering economic success for New Zealand, so something like this will really hits home for many peopl;e about the danger that a Labour/Green government would pose to that success. It's a policy based attack, Labour's made a key mistake in launching an incomplete policy and losing control of its farming, and National has a really good chance to turn this into an issue that could cost Labour badly.

Mobilise - The end game of getting out the votes

At the time of writing we're five weeks away from the start of advance voting and four weeks from overseas voting, so it's a timely opportunity to look at the end game of political campaign communications - mobilising your supporters and voters to turn up and cast their ballots for you. In political circles this is known as GOTV - Get out the vote.

Mobilise communications fall into two specific activities. The first is Enrolment. As a political campaign you want to make sure your supporters are correctly enrolled to vote, so there's a huge premium on political parties to push this. Given voter behaviour and demographics are the way they are, this has traditionally been less of a concern for right-wing political parties whose voter demographics tend to skew towards older New Zealanders who are more sedentary in their lifestyles so their enrolment details are usually up to date. Left-wing parties, whose voter demographics tend the other way towards younger, more geographically mobile people, thus have more of a challenge on their hands.

This is why over the past couple of election cycles we've seen differing efforts in New Zealand to mobilise these voters. While there's debate over the political leanings of some of these efforts, groups like Rock Enrol or FFS Vote (For Future's Sake) are examples of third-party attempts to mobilise voters.

The parties themselves take slightly different approaches. The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, for example, put a significant amount of effort in trying to engage overseas voters, as is evidenced by their having an "international candidate" whose job is to secure votes from the Kiwi diaspora around the world. Likewise, Labour is showing signs of trying to engage Kiwis living in Australia with a recent Facebook event calling for volunteers in Melbourne.

If this was 2014 you'd see this activity quite visibly ramp up, but 2017 might be a somewhat different beast. With improvements in social media and online ad targeting since 2014, the majority of the Mobilise content that's going to be produced from an online perspective is going to be below-the-line advertising.

The rationale for this is pretty simple and somewhat cynical. Political parties only want to mobilise their own supporters to vote, so the more you can focus your GOTV activities to focus on your core supporters, the better off in theory you'll be. What all the parties will be doing at the moment is figuring out exactly who they need to talk to in those final three weeks of the campaign in order to mobilise them as voters.

To achieve this from a social media perspective they'll look at all the voter data they've collected via the previous two phases of communication - Persuade and Participate - and match that up with online advertising tools. Whether it's plugging carefully curated email lists into Facebook's ad tool, selectively buying Google AdWords, or targeted advertisements on major news sites, you can generally assume that if you see an ad from any of the major political parties (National, Labour, the Greens and NZ First), you're seeing it because you match some type of demographic, behavioural, or geographic filter that suggests you might vote for them.

While the advertising tools on social media here aren't as detailed as are available in the United States and United Kingdom, they're still detailed enough when partnered with your own data to allow campaigners to be pretty confident they're talking to the right people. It won't always be perfect, for instance I've found Facebook's geographic filters here aren't particularly accurate, but it's much more cost effective at reaching a far greater number of people.

If you doubt the importance of this, you only need to look at the U.S. election. Donald Trump not only campaigned more in key battleground rust belt states, but ultimately was able to mobilise a greater number of supporters to vote than Hillary Clinton, enabling him to benefit from the quirks of the electoral college.

Participate - Petitions aren't just about supporting an issue anymore

Think by signing your name and email to an online petition that you're showing your support for an issue that's important to you? Think again. While getting you to show your support for something is part of the reason why political parties and lobby groups hit you with an endless stream of petitions and sign up pages, it's no longer the primary driver of this behaviour.

Ultimately it's all about getting your email address and starting you on a pathway to being an active support and participant in their campaign or cause.

Having already covered the extensive lengths political campaigns go to in persuading you to support them, I'm now going to look at how they aim to - and I apologise for borrowing a corporate term here - move you up their value chain.

Generally the value chain that political campaigns, lobby groups, and NGOs use goes something like this:
Voter sees content about an issue > Voter signs up via a petition on that issue > Voter receives request to donate > Voter receives request to join campaign/cause > Voter is asked to volunteer.

The idea is that each step in this path represents a greater commitment from the person they're targeting, and to move people along that value chain you need to be able to speak to them in an increasingly more targeted and personal way.

Traditionally political campaigns have done this through building voter files, and none do it better than the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States. As I've previously recommended, Sasha Issenberg's The Victory Lab does a fantastic job of explaining how this data driven approach has both evolved and is implemented in the U.S.

Where the U.S. and overseas jurisdictions differ from New Zealand is that their privacy and information sharing laws are much more lax than those here. If, like me, you've signed up to receive emails from both the Republicans and the Democrats, you may have noticed that you also eventually receive other emails from affiliated campaigns and causes. That's because they're constantly buying, selling, and refining their voter files to get the best possible information on voters so they can better identify those they want to target, and what messages that want show them.

What's changed in the last decade hasn't necessarily been this approach, it's been the channels it's applied to and the scale on which it can be done. Prior to the internet and social media it was used to micro-target direct mail, newspaper, radio, and TV advertising buying, door knocking, and phone calling. Now the same methodology is being used on social media, email, and online ad platforms, and it's backed up by data on an unprecedented scale.

As I mentioned before, New Zealand's privacy laws means that unlike the U.S. where political parties go and buy massive consumer data sets from commercial providers, that's simply not possible here. The net result has been that New Zealand's political parties, lobby groups, and NGOs have to go out and build these data sets themselves largely from scratch. This is why signing your name, age, email address, and town or postcode to a petition is almost mandatory to be able to show your support for it. Because once they have that data, they can add a line to their voter file with your name, contact details, demographic and geographic information, and issue tags to it.

The idea then is that they begin to target you through their online channels to get you to take the next step. Signed a petition? How about you donate so you can support us as we fight for it? Donated? Why not join our campaign and be part of a community of like-minded people? Joined our campaign? How about getting out and about and volunteering to help us out?

Next, because you've signed a petition on a specific issue, that party, lobby group, or NGO now knows you have a potential interest in that topic, so they can tailor content to serve to you whether it's via sending segmented emails to specific audiences, use it to target Google AdWords or SEO optimise a website, or uploading that email list into Facebook to let it create a broader audience of people who are similar to you via their demographic, geographic, and Facebook activities. On this final note, it's important to keep in mind that Facebook doesn't share that data on who else might look like you with someone who's setting up ads, but it does mean political parties can continually refine their voter files, data analysis, and targeting strategies by serving up similar content to those people.

While the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand have, in my mind, historically been the best at this, largely borrowing techniques from Greenpeace, WWF, and Forest & Bird, as far as I'm aware the Labour Party have had the single most successful sign up campaign with their "What number baby are you?" My understanding is that Labour gained somewhere in the order of 40,000 to 50,000 new email addresses to it, and while there was a larger than normal level of backlash to it when people realised they were also signing up to Labour's email list, I'd wager that the churn of unsubscribes they were getting were far outweighed by the gains they made.

It's also worth pointing out that contrary to the headline in the above article that Labour was tricking people into signing up, from my experience there's usually been text (and I believe it's a legal requirement) to the effect that signing a petition means you're agreeing to receive communications from that political party and its candidates.

As someone who's worked in this field, the notion that this is somehow a political dark art I think isn't really fair. Rather, it's part and parcel of the continuing evolution of not just communications practice, but what we're seeing more generally too across society. Other than long-standing commercial use of consumer data to target people with advertising, this approach also has the potential to offer massive benefits from a civic and social perspective too.

Whether it's getting people to engage with our democracy at all its levels, being able to understand how to communicate with people in a crisis via targeted alerts across mobile phones, social channels, and physical alerts, or being able to more accurately predict and intervene early to prevent health or law and order issues, data like this can and is used in a responsible and productive way. We're hugely fortunate in New Zealand that we do have very robust structures in place for governing its use responsibly, and a culture that does err on the side of caution about its use.

Next time we'll look at how political campaigns aim to Mobilise their supporters to get out and vote for them, a phase of political campaigning that now spans the two weeks prior to polling day with the opening of overseas and advance voting.

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.

Persuade, Participate, Mobilise - the three phases of political communications

While digital channels may have revolutionised the delivery and ability to engage with political communications, the primary driving purposes of those communications hasn't. They're either trying to persuade you to vote for something, get you to participate in helping promote that cause, and ultimately mobilise you into voting come election day.

For the next few blogs I'm going to drill down into each of these phases and how we're seeing them play out in the digital space, particularly looking at how social media, email, and data are used in their delivery. But for today, I'm going to focus on defining these categories what specific type of messaging falls into them.

Persuade is all about getting the message out about why someone should vote for you. In a New Zealand context with our short election cycle, Persuade content never really stops being produced, but it kicks into overdrive about a year out from each election. It's where the parties settle on the value proposition they're going to put to voters, develop and release their policy platforms, and attack the values and policies of other parties. This is the bread and butter stuff in the digital space, with social media graphics and videos, websites, email campaigns, needing to produce bucket loads of content to support it.

Participate is turning that support for your values and policies into donations, memberships, and volunteers come campaign time. This is why parties are so eager to get you to sign your name, email address, and other contact details to issues and petitions. Once they have those details in their database, you've taken the first step in a process designed to convert you from a potential voter into an active party member who volunteers - think Labour's very successful Baby Number campaign. While this does take place throughout the election cycle, unlike Persuade content the real guts of this happens in the months leading up to the start of the campaign, as well as during the first few weeks of the campaign. The obvious reason being that you not only need money to run a campaign, but also volunteers to door knock, make phone calls, deliver flyers, erect and wave hoardings, and generally populate your ground game.

Mobilise is the get out the vote component of political communications. Whereas in the past this took the form of activities on polling day itself, such as door knocking and offering supporters lifts to the polling station, advance voting has meant that you're now looking at a two to three week period where this will be much more intense. In fact, if you look back at each election since 2002 when advance voting was introduced, National has performed better in the advance voting period than it has overall, illustrating the real importance that this aspect of the Mobilise phase of communications has taken on.

As I mentioned before, in the next few blog entries I'll drill down into each of Persuade, Participate, and Mobilise, as well as look at how digital channels and social media in particular have impacted them.

The Greens - NZ's social media overachievers

Last week the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand hit 100,000 likes on their Facebook page, becoming the first New Zealand political party to do so. The New Zealand iteration of the Green Party movement have always been overachievers online, especially relative to their international cousins and I've always considered them to be the pace setters in terms of what's worked for political social media in New Zealand whether it's from a visual design perspective, or how they've translated political communication strategy to their social media channels.

There's a few reasons for this - and it's not because their graphic designers appear to be hooked on sepia filters. The first is that due to their co-leader system, the Greens invest heavily in promoting the Green Party brand rather than the individual brand of their leaders as is the case for National, New Zealand First and - up until this year - Labour. It makes sense from the perspective that they don't want either of their co-leaders to be more dominant than the other in terms of their public profile, so by focusing on the Green Party brand itself, they avoid that awkward situation. (James Shaw's 9,400 page likes compares favourably to Meteria Turei's nearly 15,000 given he's been co-leader for a much shorter period of time).

Along with investing heavily in the Green Party Brand, the Greens have a pretty easy set of values and messaging to put in front of people - protecting our natural environment, saving endangered species, fighting climate change - they're all remarkably easy ideas to sell people. Supported by visuals like picturesque scenery or cute animals, it appeals to people on an emotional level and to their credit the Greens have leveraged this side of their brand remarkably well with emotional calls to action supported by compelling creative work.

Whether you agree or not with the methods the Greens advocate for achieving their policy goals in these areas, it's hard to not agree that protecting out environment, saving endangered species, and fighting climate change are all good ideas and important things for New Zealand to focus on.

It should come as little surprise that week in, week out, the Greens have some of the most engaged with content both in terms of raw numbers of likes, comments, and shares, but also relative to the size of their Facebook page likes. This is also all without looking at Twitter where that channel's audience is almost custom made for the Greens to thrive.

Interspaced with their messaging around social justice issues such has poverty, homelessness, and supporting low-income families, the Greens have a very strong and compelling online brand that's well suited to online activism. As to the degree that this online success translates to polling day success is up for discussion. The Greens have certainly realised that as good as their online game is, their ground game needed to be stepped up significantly, and they've publicly committed to doing just that this year, including door knocking four times as many people as they did in 2014.

That aside, it's worth comparing how the Greens compare on Facebook relative to their international cousins, and its here that they really shine. Using one of Facebook's backend tools I've looked at how many people have an interest in their domestic Green Party each month versus how many people use Facebook on a monthly basis in that country.

As you can see, the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand really does outperform its overseas equivalents with 5% of New Zealand's monthly Facebook users having an interest (that is engaging with) their page or content. There is, undoubtedly, an element of supporter de-centralisation away from the nationwide brand in Australia, Germany, and the United States - where the federal Green brand has to compete with more locally focused state-based Green brands. While in the United Kingdom the Green Party brand is divided along national lines. Even taking that into account, I really feel that the New Zealand Greens can be very proud of what they've achieved online.

As I alluded to before, how this will translate into votes come 23 September is harder to predict. The traditional thinking is that while people love to say they'll party vote Greens to polling companies as it's generally considered a nice, warm brand that people don't have strong feelings for or against, when they walk into the polling both that mentality changes and away from the judgement of others, they revert to voting for a different party.