Political messaging and creating a tribe

THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan - The Philippine Star

My good friend and colleague in this paper, Boo Chanco, was correct when he said that the strength of a candidate’s social media trolls will determine who will become president in 2022. Trolls are today’s version of mass media, albeit without credibility. They are the preachers of a candidate’s “gospel.”

But just as important as the trolls are the messages they relay. As one who has studied the science of political messaging, let me share with you the inner workings of messaging in the context of a presidential campaign. I speak from experience, having been privy to a number of messaging programs of political leaders.

Political messaging is all about the 4P’s – Positioning, Philosophy, Proposition and Promise. The main objective of the 4P’s is to create a “tribe” of followers who display allegiance to their candidate and what he/she stands for.

Marketing guru Seth Godin said a candidate’s tribe need not be massive in number at the onset. What’s important is that these “early adaptors” reach a point of obsession towards their candidate. Managed well, early adaptors have the power to convert voters in a cumulative manner. Recall how Mayor Duterte’s share of votes was below 5 percent five months before the 2016 elections. The power of his small but fanatical tribe took him to 16 million votes by election day. Creating a fanatical tribe is the foundation of a winnable campaign.

A tribe has three components – a cause, a thought leader and a plan to realize the cause.

The cause must be made overly simplistic. Example, in her 1998 presidential bid, Miriam Santiago said that corruption is the root of all the country’s problems. That if corruption were solved, we will all have better lives. Although we all know that building a prosperous nation and an efficient government takes more than just solving corruption, it is man’s nature to want to distill complex issues into simple cases of cause and effect. This is especially true when the majority of the electorate don’t understand the workings of economics, public governance and human development. The less educated resonate with quick fix solutions – and this is what candidates pander to.

A candidate’s positioning plays an important role in creating a tribe. People are constantly seeking for “brand associations” to define who they are to the rest of the world. This is why candidates often harp on their province of origin – the idea is to build a tribe from within their geographical bailiwicks. Recall how President Duterte peddled the idea that “Imperial Manila” was the enemy and that it was time for a “son of Mindanao” to rule. Others harp on their personal attributes. In 2010, Gilbert Teodoro masterfully positioned himself as a man of “Galing at Talino” (ability and intelligence). He built a strong tribe consisting of those who identified as “educated.”

A tribe is activated by a candidate’s proposition. The key is to zero-in on a large demographic then tap on their pain points, their source of angst, fears and vulnerabilities. In the case of Trump, he zeroed-in on the less-educated Americans. His proposition was that foreigners were taking American jobs and to this, he positioned himself as the “champion of the working class.”

At this point, the principle of “confirmation bias” comes into play.  We all have biases – most of them were instilled upon us growing up.  Example, many of us were pre-programmed to have biases against the excessively rich, the communists and the incumbent government. A candidate building a tribe will pander to these biases by confirming them. He will vilify those in whom the majority have biases against, thereby making himself their “voice.” No surprise that President Duterte made an enemy of oligarchs, of the communist party and the Aquino government.

When nurturing a tribe, a candidate’s philosophy must appear to be unwavering and always “right.” This is why candidates and their trolls viciously attack and ruthlessly shame anyone who oppose their philosophy. The underlying purpose of this is to display the durability of their philosophy. Notice, too, that the tribe leader only attacks people of less clout. The idea is to clobber them and strut like a peacock afterwards. Interestingly, tribe leaders will shy away from confrontations with intellectuals and those of higher stature. Losing a confrontation can debunk the philosophy and fracture the tribe.

As for campaign promises – the more audacious, the better. The promise gives the tribe something to feed on and fodder to convert others. Politicians with integrity make promises that are doable and those they can earnestly fulfill. Example, Abraham Lincoln promised to provide the right wages for the working American. The sloppy and those without scruples will dish out promises that are impossible to fulfill. To them, what is important is how the promise electrifies the tribe. The intention is to squirm out of it later.

Do not be fooled, everything uttered by candidates in a campaign are carefully crafted, contemplated and calculated, no matter how spontaneous they may seem. They are all meant to hone the tribe.

But what if the conversion rate is not happening fast enough? What if the candidate still lags in the polls?

In such a case, the medieval principle of “divide and conquer” comes into play. This principle is as old as politics itself. The goal is to create division and discontent among the opponent’s followers.

Trump did this masterfully in the 2016 elections. At the onset of the American campaign season, most media outlets were sympathetic towards Hillary and hostile towards him. He then pitted the media against the American people themselves. The first line of attack was to forcefully deny all the allegations against him as reported by media. The second punch was to declare the media as being peddlers of fake news and agents of disinformation. He made the media an enemy of America – one whose credibility is questionable.

Some of Hillary’s supporters believed Trump’s “fake news” narrative, others did not. Either way, they had to pick a side. No matter which side they chose, Hillary’s tribe would be fractured.  Trump did this over and over again on different issues until it eroded Hillary’s poll lead.

Messaging is at the heart of any winnable campaign – and it starts and ends with the strength of a candidate’s tribe.

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Email: [email protected]. Follow him on Facebook @Andrew J. Masigan


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