Why is Selling Government So Hard?

Waqar Azeem


Selling politicians and government initiatives has been so hard in Pakistan. Why?

Selling politicians and governments all over the world is hard. In Pakistan, it is ten times harder. Selling potato chips and colas is not easy either but they are good at understanding their audience and using the best marketing communication strategies. Selling politicians and government initiatives has been so hard in Pakistan. Why?

A one-sentence answer could be: low marketing budget; absence of well thought out, image building campaigns; undue reliance on traditional media for visibility through press releases, tickers, print media ads; and underutilization of digital media platforms for government publicity as advertisement policy for digital and entertainment channels is yet to be promulgated.

Simply put, one doesn’t get to see government ads and campaigns on popular digital platforms such as YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, OLX, Daraz, Urdupoint, BBC Urdu, Dawn, Naya Daur, Hum Sabh, Tribune.com or any entertainment, movie or music channel. In other words, it is like chalking out Pakistan’s development plan without considering 50% of its women, 65% of its youth, and relying only on 15% of its older population.

Communication strategists in the public sector need to understand that digital communication is cheaper, ensures a wider audience with targeted and effective communication. President Trump’s election to the presidency and Modi’s re-election in India are two glaring examples of the wonders of digital media when used effectively for political marketing. Many digital media influencers believe that the sitting government that itself banked heavily upon digital media for its political campaigns and ultimate ascendancy to power seems to be losing on the digital front for not selling itself effectively to the masses.

Let’s acknowledge that communication is the fuel of the modern world. Let’s acknowledge that without lobbying and networking, projection of the government’s initiatives and policies for the masses it apparently is working so hard on, miscommunication and propaganda can be a potential threat to its legitimacy. Let’s also accept the fact that the onslaught of digital communication, internet connectivity, smartphones, and social media feeds and posts have revolutionized the society and governance. The latter has absolutely changed the traditional methods of media management and PR practices.

A look at the digital media landscape of Pakistan provides food for thought for political PR practitioners, repute managers, government media strategists, corporate communication experts, students of mass communication and other such stakeholders. According to the Global Digital Year Book 2020 by We Are Social, out of its 218 million population, 165 million people (75%) have mobile phone connections with 73 million people (35%) active internet users. As of January 2020, some 37 million people are regular social media users with 98% of them using it through their mobile phones. Popular social media platforms with Pakistani users are Facebook (33 million), Instagram (6.4 million), Twitter (about 2 million), and a whopping 32.5 million people or more are frequent visitors of YouTube through their mobile phones.

The point to be noted here is that digital media is the new game-changer. Its subscriptions are on the rise with every passing day and information spreads more quickly on digital media than it does via traditional media. Almost all the leading media conglomerates, political commentators, analysts, bloggers, vloggers, opinion makers, and an army of social media influencers have their own digital spaces with a relatively good number of followers.

The “viral” phenomenon has far outweighed the Breaking News cliché. Videos of Uzma Khan in Pakistan and George Floyd in America are the two latest examples of this phenomenon. Lately, it is the digital media that has gained a complete monopoly over making and breaking the image of political leaders and predicting the success or failure of government initiatives. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand and Donald Trump are the two most relevant examples in this regard. The former is constantly gaining, and the latter is badly losing the image battle.

Political events and information that used to take days to reach the public can increasingly be viewed live from almost anywhere. PR practitioners, reputation, and media managers are branching out from managing tomorrow’s headlines in the print and primetime bulletins on the electronic media to dealing with the last five minutes’ tweets, Facebook feeds, and Instagram posts. And, the forward march of technological change suggests that we are on the cusp of real-time media and image management.

Believe it or not, continual communications management is the new reality of governance. Digital media marketing of government policies, initiatives, and image management of political leaders and top government functionaries based on research and authentic data is the way forward. What is needed here for political communication is a paradigm shift — shifting the reliance from conventional media to digital media. Walking away from the news or information-centric communication to realistic, emotional, and two-way communication while gauging the pulse of the masses is what required.

Powerful messages and political campaigns that people can associate with have the potential to remain in people’s memory for a longer period of time. Government initiatives coming from a third party in the form of a web series, short film, or documentary might be more digestible for the masses than direct messages in news form. Trump: An American Dream, Modi: Journey of a Common Man, Toilet: A Love Story; and Pakistanis’ newfound love for Turkish season Magnificent Century (Mera Sultan) and Ertugrul are examples of political communication done well. The latter has broken all-time YouTube records after releasing in Pakistan. They all have political angling.

Last but certainly not least, let’s not forget that digital media is the new king of the world. Properly tapping the so far untapped arena of digital media with all its details, protocols, targeted PR campaigns, and effective communication strategies can go a long way in achieving what has been elusive so far — selling the government to the masses effectively. Moreover, every public department should allocate a good amount of budget for digital marketing and communication. An early promulgation of Advertisement Policy for digital media should be the starting point.

This blog was published in The Express Tribune, June 2nd, 2020.