The election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States has been heralded as a watershed moment in American history. Obama, at the time a junior senator from Illinois, overcame his more senior collages, Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party nominations, and John McCain, in the presidential elections, to become the first African American president.
Many analysts have pointed out that while a few things went in Obama’s favour, he ran the most effective and efficient campaign seen in very long time, probably ever, in American political history.
Many articles have been written analysing how Obama won the race to the White House, on an almost unprecedented wave of support from around the world, with some poignantly pointing out that it was almost as if his campaign had become a movement because of its wide appeal amongst Americans.
Obama’s election has inspired many around the world, some of whom will be looking to replicate his winning formula in reaching out to people. A search on Facebook.com reveals there are many Nigerian-centred advocacy groups, many clamouring for change in a country, which despite its great wealth, majority of its citizens live in poverty.
Here are ten tips for those advocacy groups can turn themselves into an Obama-like movement and bring about the changes they desire.
1. Develop a Consistent Message
From the beginning throughout over the 18 month electoral campaign, Obama had one message and that message was “Change”. The word was everywhere in his campaign, and he was able to channel over the long campaign period. More importantly the word not only fitted in with the Obama’s views and promises, it hit a chord with the American public. Indeed, it was also a hit with the rest of the world, who were yearning to see a change of hands and policies coming out of Washington D.C.
Now contrast Obama’s message with that of Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Can’t think of anything? That is probably because they struggled to come up with a consistent message early in the campaign, and when they did settle on a message, it was not exactly resonate with want the public wanted. What they wanted was change and Obama had made sure from the very beginning that everybody knew that what exactly what his campaign was about.
“Change” is also a running them almost the online groups on Facebook. With some, it is imbedded in their name, such as “Movement for Positive Change Nigeria”, “I want to Change Nigeria”, “Ideas Capable of Changing Nigeria”. With others is generally implied – “The League for a Better Nigeria”, “Fixing Nigeria”
Obama’s message of change has clearly stroke a chord with the Nigerian public, and the main reason it has, is because that is what they want as well. Hardly a day passes when Nigerians are not bombarded with news stories about public officials being arrested or investigated for staggering amounts of money.
It hard not to believe that when people who are struggling get to by, hear about the amounts of misplaced or misspent money, would do not want answers, especially in Nigeria when they hardly get any. Most of the cases against the politicians that eventually make it to the courts usually get dismissed for insufficient evidence, drag on for what seems like an eternity, or end up with what amounts to a slap on the wrist for the offending public figure.
Nigerians are eager for a change from the business as usual altitude they read about in the news without any significant changes in their lives. Nigeria has one of the highest poverty rates in the world, with a third of Africa’s poor living in the country. A message of “Change” for those 100 million people is bound to go down very well.
2. Have a Rallying Call
Following his defeat in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary, Barack Obama, used “Yes we can”, a modified translation of the United Farm Workers (UFW) slogan "Sí, se puede" (Spanish for "Yes, it can be done") in his speech. The slogan dates back to 1972 when Cesar Chavez and the UFW's co-founder, Dolores Huerta, came up with the slogan during Chavez's 24 day fast in Phoenix. Arizona.
Obama once again mentioned the three words again in his victory speech in South Carolina, and from there it took on a life of its own, with an unofficial musical video being made featuring a bunch of Hollywood celebrities who supported Obama.
“Yes we can” became a rallying call which bypassed the usual media channels to bring the message directly to the people who needed to hear it, in a place where they will be most likely to find it, in a form in which they might actually pay attention to it – YouTube.
The video became such a big hit online, that it was not long before it was getting a lot of media attention; further sending out Obama’s rallying call to millions of people who might not have been reached via the YouTube website.
The success of Obama rallying call was down to several factors – firstly it embodied a can-do altitude with generally goes down with the public.
Secondly, it was a message of hope, which is a very seductive and powerful tool in garnering support for any cause.
Thirdly it was inclusive, as “Yes you can”, or “Yes I can” does not carry the same weight. This is very important, especially if you want people to feel like they are contributing towards history, rather just watching history being made. You can are likely to succeed it you can pull off the former.
3. Offer Solutions
People are always moved by speeches of hope, but they also need to know that that there is a plan to fix the problems they face. This was a problem Obama faced during the primaries and the early stage of the presidential campaign, as his opponents accused of being all rhetoric and offering no solutions to fix the problems facing Americans.
While not entirely true, the accusations were enough to take some of the shine off Obama’s growing adulation from the American public. The Obama team were still working on a detailed plan for fixing American’s problems, which was somewhat evident during the Democratic Party’s primary debates, as Hilary Clinton always appeared to get her points across more clearly than Obama did.
That said, people do not want to actually want to be bored silly with mind numbing details of plans for the country but they do want to know that you do have solutions and have thought through what you are going to do.
It is a hard task to balance inspiring people and also giving details of your plans, but Obama managed to pull it off, more especially towards the end of the campaign, when he had a fuller grasp of what the solutions he wanted to bring to the table.
It is easy to lash out when things are not working, just as it is easy to criticise those who are who fail to deliver on their promises, but it is much harder to come up with solutions to fix the problem.
This is a problem that many of the online Nigerian advocacy groups face. All acknowledge that there are problems with the way things are run in Nigeria, all acknowledge that things need to change in the country but almost none offer any kind of information on how they intend on how to improve the country. Until they come up with credible solutions to solving the country’s problems, it is unlikely there would be little more than dysfunctional online social clubs, with irregular postings on their discussions boards.
4. Build a Team
Right from the very beginning in January, 2007, Obama surrounded himself with a strong team. Together with David Plouffe and David Axelrod, they were able to attract great staff that were inspired to work for Obama, as they believed in his message of hope.
Putting together a great team is one hardest tasks that will face any organisation. However one of the key criterions is selecting people that will not only add value to the cause but are not in for their own agenda. That is easier said than done as there is no known scientific method for weeding out glory or fortune hunters. It would be down to the handlers to trust their instinct in picking the right people.
However a word of mouth referral, by getting already existing members of an organisation to recruit family and friends they truly believe would be dedicated to the cause and are team players, does help in weeding out undesirables and potential troubles makers.
It is equally important to keep the core team to a small size as this allows the organisation to respond quickly to challenges and any change in direction of the campaign. Obama’s campaign was run by a small inner circle of highly intelligent professionals which included Plouffe and Axelrod and it was this group that set the tone for mood, tone and pace of the Obama campaign.
While it is important to have many supporters, if the core team that makes the decision becomes too large, it can make the organisation lose focus, decisions can take longer to be made and it becomes harder to control the main message of campaign, as there are a lot more people than necessary that can speak for organisation.
Poignantly, there are many advocacy groups in Nigeria who all have the same agenda of bringing change in Nigeria, but hardly form any partnerships with one another. Sometimes the success of an organisation is dependent on forming coalitions with other groups with similar agendas.
The Democratic Party is formed of several labour groups, civil rights organisations, student unions and advocacy groups, who all share the same ideology under the Democratic Party platform. If these are advocacy groups in Nigeria are to have any meaningful impact they would need to come together, as a mutually advantageous conjunction would be more powerful than the sum of their actions.
5. The Media is your New Best Friend
One of the most spoken about advantages that Barack Obama had on his way to the US Presidency was that the US media, while trying to stay objective, were more favourable towards his campaign as compared to the other candidates, the rest of the world media were less unashamedly so. This was clearly evident from the coverage of Obama’s trip to Europe and the Middle East at the height of the campaign.
Political campaigns often court the media as they can effectively become the campaign’s talking piece. This is will be very important in forming a favourable perception with the general public.
Winning over the media is very hard work and involves a lot of schmoozing but it is mainly about being proactive as well as having a tight control over the delivery of the message of the organisation which will involve;
• Who is authorised to address the media, this holds more true during periods of controversy.
• What issues should be spoken about and what should not.
• Developing messages for different issues and different situations.
• Prepare for “impromptu” interviews. The official spokesperson should always be ready to give interviews any time of the day, even at 4 am in the morning.
• Treat all media people with the same respect, regardless of the size and influence of the news organisation they work with.
• Embrace new media, as bloggers and citizen journalists are becoming just as influential as the traditional media outlets.
Lastly developed a zero tolerance for news leaks by keeping everyone in the organisation relatively happy, while news organisations love scoops from anonymous sources, they generally view organisations that leaks stories as sinking ships, and are thus less likely to portray those organisations in a positive light.
This was one of where Obama’s main opponents, first Hillary Clinton, and then John McCain struggled to win over the media as there was always a disgruntled member of their team that was ready to dish the dirt on the inner chaos and power struggles engulfing their campaign.
6. Embrace Technology
By harnessing the Internet, Obama’s campaign changed the way politicians organise supporters, advertise to voters, defend against attacks and communicate with voters. His team used the Internet to organise his supporters in a way that would normally have required an army of volunteers and paid organisers on the ground to pull off.
What’s more the Obama campaign made the use of technology personal, from the viral Facebook campaigns, through the announcement of his running mate via text messages, to the personalized e-mail messages; the Obama people made every individual feel important and part of a larger team.
This helped to unleash an army of online supporters, who were themselves recruited online, that went online in huge numbers to recruit more supporters and make individual donations that created the best funded campaign in American history.
While Internet penetration might be low in Nigeria, political campaigns can harness the mobile phone technologies to create a similar impact.
7. Be able to Inspire People
The power of word not should be underestimated and Obama knows how to use them to great effect. Through his speeches and his books, he has inspired a great number of people who were keen to see him elected.
Obama had to put in a lot of hard work and practice to master the skill of using words to get his message across and inspire people at the same time. Besides the long hours of practising and listening to recorded speeches of modern great speakers such as Martin Luther King, the following three things were key to Obama’s success in inspiring people;
(a) Know what people want: Obama knew that people were tired of the way business was done in Washington, the constant fighting between the two major political parties and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also knew that many Americans believed that the country was heading in the wrong direction. During majority of his early speeches, he focused a lot on those issues because he knew they were important to people.
(b) Speak from the heart: Knowing what people is one thing, if you express the same views but do not believe in them, it would not be long before people pick you out as a fraud. Obama truly believed in the things he said, and people could sense that, which was why they were drawn to him. From the beginning, even when many politicians were for the Iraq war, Obama kicked against it. And when the public opinion turned against the war, Obama was probably one of the few politicians in Washington with any credibility on that issue.
Hilary Clinton had moment of inspiration on the night before the New Hampshire Primary, when she poured out her heart in a coffee shop on why she wanted to be president. That particular moment inspired a lot of people, more especially to go out and vote for her and literally saved her from the embarrassment of an early defeat in the primary season.
(c) Be a Clean Slate: Although this frustrated his opponents and detractors, Obama usually spoke in general terms rather that rattle out specifics of what he wanted to do. But this was actually helped him with the general public, as it now allowed them to impose their versions of the message of hope and change on him.
8. Measure Results
The Obama campaign kept track of everything, what worked for them and what did not. This way they were able to measure the effectiveness of their tactics and strategies, and run an almost faultless campaign.
Flexibility is key here, as some of the results measured will require change in plans, sometimes in a totally opposition direction in one’s previous stance, which is not wrong, so long as you clearly articulate why you have changed your position and be contrite about it.
One of the key failures of the Clinton campaign was her inability to apologise for supporting the Iraq war, even though there was mounting evidence to show the American public were deceived by false reports justifying the war. This rankled activists in the Democratic Party base who rallied around Obama and were key to his early successes in the caucuses. Clinton left her apology and change of stance too late but by then the damage had already been done.
Having a large war chest does not guarantee success and votes. But it helps. Because of their historic fundraising success, the Obama campaign has been able to simultaneously compete in more states than McCain, open more local offices and finance more ground operations to overwhelm their opponent in the swing states.
Knowing how to spend the money is equally as important, as the Clinton campaign, which had a significantly larger war chest than Obama’s before the Iowa primaries, virtually threw most of that money away and were weighed under by mounting debts halfway through the campaign.
Equally significant was Obama campaign’s ability to tap millions of small donors, which made feel like they were contributing to something they actually had a say in, unlike the other campaigns which relied heavily on big donors to finance their campaigns.
Obama financial strategy and prudence allowed him to outspend his opponents in areas that mattered and gave people an indication of how he planned to managed the economy, as both Clinton’s and McCain’s campaigns experienced cash flow problems during the course of the 18 months which nearly imploded their organisations.
10.It is all about the People
One of the things that disappoint people the most about politicians and political organisations is that they sometimes forget or sometime blatantly ignore the fact they are there to serve the people and not the other way round.
Any political movement will do well to remember that people will be looking to them to
LEAD (Listen to their problems, be Empathic to their needs, be Assuring, Deserving of their support).
(a) Listen to their problems: This one thing the Obama campaign were great at as they were well attuned to what the what the people were worrying about, and adjusted their messages to suit the concerns of the people.
Before the collapse of Lehman Brothers Bank, people were mainly worried about the war in Iraq, with the Obama campaign focusing offering solutions on how they were going to bring an end to the war.
However as soon as the bank collapsed they shifted their attention to offering solutions on how to save the economy as that was in the forefront of people’s mind. The McCain campaign shot themselves in the foot by saying that the economy was fundamentally sound, even though Americans could see it collapsing around them.
(b) Be Emphatic: It is one thing to listen to people’s problems; it is another thing to be able to relate them. This was one of the problems the Obama campaign had with low-earning white rural dwellers, as they felt he was a bit aloof and would not be able to relate to their problems like Hilary Clinton could. The ironic thing was Obama had a closer background to them than Hilary Clinton did.
Being emphatic was something that the outgoing President, George Bush and former President, Bill Clinton had mastered. On the campaign trail, they were able to connect to voters from all backgrounds, and made them feel like they understood their pain.
(c) Be Assuring: People what to know that in a time of crises they can depend on depends on their leaders. Obama has an assuring demeanour, which was typified during the negotiation of the financial bailout of the banks at the senate, when McCain suspended his campaign to return to Washington.
Many voters saw it as a desperate ploy, and he became the butt of jokes amongst comedians on late night TV shows. Even more importantly, he highlighted Obama’s ability to stay above the fray and keep a steady hand in moments of crisis, as Obama decided he could still participate in the negotiations, and keep his campaign running at the same time.
(d) Be Deserving of Their Support: Finally and most importantly, it is all about the grassroots support. Without the support of a grassroots, it would be doubtful if Obama will have been able to overcome the Clinton political machinery, who could once call upon the support of the most of the top brass in the Democratic Party.
To win over the people’s support, it has to be earned. That means going out meeting and talking to people, which consumes up a lot of time. Obama spent more time on the campaign trail than his opponent in the presidential campaign, taking off very little time off to see his family.
For any truly people centric political movement to be successful in Nigeria and see off old school politicians who are more interested in lining their pockets rather than serving the people, advocacy groups will need to go and out reach to the very people they want to help, by going door to door and putting their case forward.
Dr. Obi Igbokwe
Sterling and Greenback