Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Lessons for PR professionals from the Kejriwal phenomenon

Yes, there’s lots to learn from the Arvind Kejriwal phenomenon that has stunned not just the state of Delhi but the entire nation. Born on August 16, 1968 he sure missed that year’s Independence Day by a whisker, but the spirit of freedom seems to have own grown stronger over time. While listening to Kejriwal’s speech post the swearing in of the first Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government at Ramlila Ground in New Delhi, it was clear that this achievement is as much to do with a fantastically executed communications strategy as it is to do with shrewd political strategy.

The AAP performance in Delhi is a case study for all in the area of mass communications particularly for public relations students and professionals. While a lot has been said about Kejriwal's political strategy and unrelenting conviction, for the sake of this article, I would want to limit myself to analysing the salient steps of his communications strategy and its execution.

Step 1: Leveraging audience insights

At the heart of any communication strategy lies indepth understanding of target audience’s emotions and hot buttons. While corruption is a nationwide issue, not specific to Delhi, Kejriwal maintained a razor sharp focus on establishing and reiterating the link between corruption in state government to the day-to-day problems faced by Delhi’s poor and middle class citizens – irregular water supply, high electricity bills and sky-rocketing food prices. Add to the list, the appalling state of women’s safety in New Delhi which has been a burning issue in the last one year, and the audience connect couldn’t be more complete for a party that claims to represent the common men and women.

On all these issues, the ruling Congress Party scoffed at AAP’s criticism by providing counter arguments such as our performance speaks. Well, it didn’t and the result is for all to see. The Congress in Delhi couldn’t understand what hit it as its popularity came crumbling down like a house of cards. Poor communication had much to do with the defeat.  

From the very beginning of his election campaign, Kejriwal leveraged symbolism to ingrain his message in the minds of the audience – the broom as a symbol of cleaning the society of corruption, the white Gandhi cap which symbolized India’s freedom struggle and even after the victory, using public transport to reach the venue of his swearing in ceremony.

Lesson for PR professionals: Based on insights, the strategy must clearly identify how every message has a direct connect with an existing audience need, value or belief. Prepare for the counter arguments or as we say ‘rude Qs’. Use relatable symbols to strengthen the connect. Call out key differentiators that clearly set you apart. Most often, it is these audience insights and differentiators that make or break a communications strategy.

Step 2: Crafting credible messages and validating them time and again

Messaging was Kejriwal’s strongest area. Having worked extensively at the grassroots, he was fully aware of the pulse of the poor. Kejriwal and his team pre-empted the fact that the messaging had to address two key questions or doubts that would emerge in the minds of the voters.
  1. How serious is his rookie party, AAP in delivering where the other two rival parties, BJP and Congress had failed, considering the others have a sizeable governance record while AAP has none? 
  2. Will the vote for AAP be a wasted one since the party may end up winning just a few seats and is primarily aiming to divide votes?

The party addressed the first doubt by taking a tough stance on most of the issues. While Kejriwal was blamed by opposition and some sections of the media for being rigid and self-righteous, his unflinching stance seemed to demonstrate a steely resolve to address the people’s issues. Kejriwal ensured that his allegations against the government were backed by facts/ evidence of some sort. For instance in January 2013 he claimed to have a confidential letter by State Electricity Board stating that the private power distribution companies did have the headroom to reduce tariffs but chose to make huge profits instead. 

To address the second doubt the party conducted surveys on its own which claimed that Kejriwal was the most popular choice for Chief Minister by the people of the state. The raw data of the survey was put on the party’s website for verification. Having a credible and respected psephologist and political commentator as Yogendra Yadav incharge of the surveys, meant that the results were being taken seriously by some media and audience segments.

All documents from the manifesto to the pamphlets reinforced the same messages. To top it all, each and every party leader walked the talk during and after the campaign period.

Lesson for PR professionals: Ensure that all messages are validated by referenceable proof points. If proof points do not exist, use audience surveys to create credible evidence. Always get your facts right and be anal about it if needed. Credibility and transparency are at the core of message acceptance. And most crucially, ensure that the spokespersons walk the talk.

Step 3: Focus on message delivery and swiftness of response on all platforms - traditional and social media

Once AAP got its messaging in place, it went for the kill with all guns blazing. As a PR professional, I could well imagine how effectively its media cell was being managed with the party spokespersons being allocated for high-impact TV debates and print media interviews while its candidates went on a door-to-door campaign in their constituencies. The flow of information to the media was uninterrupted. The calmness and confidence with which most of AAP’s spokespersons (Shazia Ilmi, Rahul Mehra, Manish Sisodia, Prashant Bhushan) fielded questions on TV channels showed the level of preparation, aided by the fact that they all have a media or law background. The party’s lightening fast response to the alleged sting operation blunted the opposition’s attack.  

Well sure, some key media persons were clearly supportive of the AAP cause which showed in the debates but that doesn’t take way from the fact that the media cell was well managed.

Another commendable effort was its social media outreach aimed at the youth led by Ankit Lal, AAP’s social media strategist. Considering the high number of first time voters between the age group of 18-22, social media formed the best means to reach them. An additional message for this audience was on the significance of exercising one’s the right to vote since once they get to the polling stations, they were far more likely to vote for AAP than for any other party.

Most key party members were active on Twitter during campaigning period from @shaziailmi to @msisodia. The number of Hindi tweets showed the attempt to keep the Hindi speaking audience engaged. On reviewing @ArvindKejriwal twitter handle with over 990,000 followers (as on Jan 1, 2014), its following list of 72 consisted primarily of media houses, top political journalists and spokespersons of rival parties, apart from close aides. Similarly the @AamAadmiParty twitter handle with over 290,000 followers, follows 377 comprising a mixed bag of party supporters, rival candidates notably Dr. Harsh Vardhan who is the BJP's CM candidate and top political journalists. The importance being given to media and rival comments was amply evident. In comparison, Sheila Dikshit of the Congress is not present on Twitter whereas Dr. Harsh Vardhan of the BJP has only 32,000 twitter followers.

The Aam Aadmi Party Facebook page had over 200,000 people talking about it any given time while the BJP Facebook page which happens to be older and with over twice the number of likes had on average 160,000 people talking about it. The graphics and visuals, taken from various sources, being posted on the page evoked a high degree of audience interest. Most graphics had a link to party's owned online platforms such as the website particularly to the donations page since a significant part of the party's funding came from Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) who donated online. Online and offline campaigns were synchronized. Kejriwal became one of the five most mentioned Indian politicians on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter in the run-up to the assembly elections.

Lesson for PR professionals: In the age of constant media and audience scrutiny, swiftness of response is as critical as authenticity of message. However, this can only happen when Steps 1 and 2 have been thoroughly undertaken. Many PR professionals rush to Step 3 which fails to achieve the desired impact and can backfire during a crisis if the proof points are not in place. On social media platforms, listen carefully and thereafter let each spokesperson engage with the audience directly rather than routing it through the company page/handle. That said, do set the engagement guidelines and train the spokesperson if needed, but don’t restrict people-to-people engagement. Also, the visual element is crucial considering the short attention span of online audiences. 

Day 1 as Chief Minister of Delhi at CM's office
As public relations professionals, we have grown richer by studying the experience of Arvind Kejriwal and his party. As we enter another election year, the communication strategy would be a decisive factor for who gets to wear the crown in 2014 general elections. So, exciting times ahead for those in the business of public relations…

January 2014 marks the completion of one year of my blog. Would like to thank all those who have encouraged me during this period and would appreciate feedback on the existing content as well as any other aspects that you’d like me to cover. You can also reach me on @tarunnagrani. Onward with my passion for PR...