CAMPAIGNS: Political PR - PLP strikes chord with island voters

Client: Bahamian Progressive Liberal Party (Bahamas)
PR Team: PLP advisors and candidates, Allyn & Co. (Dallas)
Campaign: 2002 parliamentary/Prime Ministerial elections
Time Frame: Spring 2001 - May 2002
Budget: About $2 million

Political bouts in the Bahamas aren't fought with ads over the airwaves, but in streets with rallies, songs, and grassroots campaigning. With only 300,000 residents, national campaigns become as personal as American mayoral races.

The Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) ruled the Bahamas from 1967 until 1992, when the Free National Movement (FNM) won a majority of parliamentary seats amid scandals implicating PLP corruption. Party leader Perry Christie once abandoned the PLP in disgust, but returned to help reform the party, which aimed its sights this year on regaining control.

Strategy

The FNM's "remember when attacks meant little to young voters who didn't recall the PLP's dark days, explains Jacqueline Charles, a Miami Herald reporter who covered the Bahamian elections. While the country enjoyed prosperity under the FNM's leadership, many young citizens didn't feel they sufficiently shared the wealth. The PLP estimated the country's unemployment rate at about 11%, and implied that its opposition favored foreign investment over domestic social policy.

Traditionally, as the islands' more liberal party, the PLP wanted to appeal to young voters as an alternative to the status quo. Although party officials directed strategy, they hired Dallas-based public affairs firm Allyn & Co. about a year before the campaign to help with message development and media training.

"As a foreign consultant, you always need to check your expertise at the door, advises Rob Allyn, who found the youth focus unusual.

Tactics

The PLP mounted about 100 rallies on various islands in the year leading up to the election, Allyn estimates. The party needed to build exposure without knowing exactly when the general election would take place (the majority party can call elections at any time). The PLP first flexed its muscle in a late-winter referendum on social issues, with its preferred policies winning dramatically, Allyn says.

Philip Smith, the PLP's chief fundraiser, says while music always plays a role in Bahamian politics, political speeches usually dominate rallies.

At PLP events, however, music often started an hour or more before Christie's 40-minute speech, and would continue afterwards amid fireworks. Christie would run on stage, slap supporters' hands, pause for musical interludes, and always perform his signature Junkanoo dance. "It felt more like a Rolling Stones concert than a political rally," Allyn recalls.

Parties sometimes informed the country's small and often partisan press packs of rally plans in the morning, and had 70,000 people or more show up that night. The opposition often held counter rallies the next night, or at different locations.

Politicians also handed out plenty of T-shirts, banners, and flags, and by election day, PLP supporters flashed each other the party hand sign, Allyn says. The Bahamas' most popular artists recorded political songs that permeated the airways, often as paid advertising. Radio played heavily into the media relations strategy as well because of TV's relatively smaller role in Bahamian life, Allyn says.

Both parties used music and rallies to reach voters, Charles clarifies.

"Their message was everywhere, she says. "Whatever the message was, it was consistent."

Results

The PLP won 29 of the 40 parliamentary seats up for grabs, which meant Christie became Prime Minister.

After the election, Allyn concentrated on international media relations to combat the perception that the new party would be cool toward foreign investors. As a foreign journalist, Charles says the party's intense local focus caused her frustrations, but she was able to get an interview with Christie after the election. Allyn says his colleagues at Fleishman-Hillard, which acquired his firm in January, used their contacts to arrange foreign-press interviews.

Future

Allyn's relationship as a PLP consultant continues. Charles says the party's challenge now is to live up to its publicity.

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