The politics of messaging

Updated 26 Oct 2020

Email

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

THE opposition’s rallies and protest campaign have intensified a bitter verbal duel between representatives of the government and the opposition. The clash of narratives shines a light on the kind of political communication being used by the two sides.

The environment obviously shapes the messaging by both sides. The atmosphere today is marked by heightened political tensions as confrontation intensifies between the government and the opposition alliance. The opposition is hoping to leverage growing public disappointment with the PTI government’s two-year performance as rising inflation and economic hardship continue to fuel increasing discontent. The lack of governance in Punjab has also provided the opposition with political ammunition, helped by the absence of any spirited defence of the provincial leadership by PTI members.

The government, for its part, continues to place unifocal emphasis in its messaging on casting the opposition as a bunch of venal politicians more interested in diverting attention from their court cases than any concern for governance issues. Where politics is intensely personal, it is no surprise that polemics from both sides have assumed an increasingly personal nature, including character attacks — however unseemly.

Effective public communication depends on a number of factors. They include building trust with the audience, making claims congruent with reality, framing narratives that strike a public chord by reflecting people’s concerns, avoiding ‘overkill’ or overspin and deploying credible spokespersons to make the case. Any primer on public communication aimed at shaping the political environment and popular perceptions will tell you that both the message and messenger are important to win hearts and minds.

Beyond the war of words, confrontational politics risks plunging the country into prolonged instability.

How does messaging from the two sides measure up against these essentials? The government’s ability to communicate effectively is especially critical as it has to set the agenda and maintain the initiative. Governments in any case have to articulate their purpose and performance in office on a continuing basis to sustain and widen their support. It would therefore be appropriate to consider this first and in greater detail.

The most striking aspect of the government’s messaging is its predominantly negative nature. Statements by official spokespersons are overwhelmingly dominated by how corrupt and unpatriotic the opposition is. This reflects an obsessive preoccupation with the opposition and while it aims to denude political adversaries of legitimacy, such rhetoric tells the public little about how the government is dealing with people’s problems.

In fact, disproportionate focus on deriding opponents does two things. It creates an impression that officials have little to say on the government’s performance. And constant harping on a single theme produces public fatigue with a hackneyed message. The principal task of spokesmen is to articulate and explain official policy not just demonise adversaries. Endlessly engaging in the latter creates a disconnect with public concerns as these are eclipsed by incessant verbal assaults on the opposition. That also does little to build public confidence.

Another aspect of the PTI’s strategy is to roll out its spokesmen as often as possible — as witnessed after the opposition’s public rallies and the shocking Karachi incident — sometimes several times in the day, to blunt the opposition’s criticism. Mounting the airwaves with a competing ‘story’ to prevent opponents from dominating the media is a time-worn tactic and common in politics everywhere. But to do so every few hours with the same message is tiresome for the audience and counterproductive as news is created by saying something new, not being an echo chamber churning out worn-out messages that people switch off from.

The problem is compounded when spokespersons delivering the government’s message lack political standing and persuasive appeal. The PTI has enough people to effectively convey its messages than those its leadership has chosen. In Punjab, for example, their main capability seems to be the number of insults they can hurl in pressers rather than any communication skill. Defence of the government has to rest on facts, arguments and rational points, not on ridicule and slander of others. This actually does the leadership a disservice.

An unfortunate aspect of the political culture today, to which the ruling party has contributed, is the use of abrasive and incendiary language in political conversation, upending norms of political debate. This has debased the political discourse and undermined the image of the government of being a mature team while eroding public respect for politicians in general. People expect elected representatives to set an example of responsible leadership, not use the immoderate language of a street brawl.

The opposition’s focus is obviously on exposing what it sees as the ruling party’s ineptitude and failure to govern competently. While some of its spokespersons have been effective it too needs to raise the game in its messaging. It is also resorting to personal attacks which has two effects. It detracts from issues on the public mind and shifts focus away from the country’s problems that need to be addressed. Of course, the principal role of oppositions everywhere is to subject government policies and actions to scrutiny. But it is also to explain how it would solve national problems. That has been lacking in the opposition’s messaging. Crucial for building wider public support is to convey how the opposition would deal with issues that it critiques the government for failing to tackle. Its main message is also lost in long-winded and verbose public speeches by some of its leaders, who need to speak less about their plight and more about the people’s concerns.

A challenge for the heterogeneous opposition alliance is how to speak with a coherent voice on key issues especially its principal objectives and tactics. The PDM’s 26-point resolution — a common minimum agenda — is one thing, but core messages are quite another as it is the latter that impacts on the public. On this count speeches and pressers by opposition leaders leave questions on the public mind about whether these parties even agree on the main goal.

Words have consequences. But beyond the war of words, confrontational politics can plunge the country into prolonged instability in tough economic times with far-reaching repercussions for all stakeholders. Non-stop political combat also risks a loss of public confidence in political leaders, which can be consequential for Pakistan’s democracy.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2020