Campaign basics remain the same on foreign soil

As borders become more porous, identities more mingled, and ideas more diffuse, organizations find themselves communicating with audiences in new regions that are often politically complex, volatile, and at varying stages of development.

As borders become more porous, identities more mingled, and ideas more diffuse, organizations find themselves communicating with audiences in new regions that are often politically complex, volatile, and at varying stages of development.

When seeking to develop a profile or change attitudes or behaviors, businesses, NGOs, and governments all have a stake in influencing audiences successfully. Nevertheless, the basics of campaigning remain, whether undertaken in London, Luanda, or Lahore.

Communicating effectively can be a minefield in politically complex areas, with opportunities rife for cultural misinterpretation. In many of the countries where we work, public attention rarely galvanizes around slow-burning issues without a trigger to ignite interest; for example, a Tunisian vegetable seller having his cart confiscated sparked the Arab Spring. Creating opportunities for these stories to reach wider audiences can fuel demand for change.

We know from lobbying in electorally unstable countries that those in power are often only in posts for a short time, and are often hamstrung as they try to keep fragile coalitions together. Influencing those who remain in positions of power is crucial, as is ensuring that civil servants, business leaders, and civil society groups are pushing your agenda. When engaging politicians, court consensus builders - those who at coalition-making time will have a king-making role.

Research is vital to effective campaigning. Use focus groups and ethnographies to test content before release. This will enable you to spot problems and opportunities and modify messaging or tactics. This will also help avoid unintended consequences that can push audiences in the wrong direction.

While working with local partners can be difficult due to different priorities, they are much more likely to gauge local sentiment, ensuring no red lines are crossed. Give them clear no-go areas and aims. Delegate responsibility as close to the ground as possible, so partners can be reactive and sensitive and scale up and down when necessary. Provide guidance and rigorously interrogate potential partners' assumptions and experience.

Using the right channels to communicate is crucial. Radio, cartoons, and songs are very effective with illiterate audiences. Soaps and dramas can provide an entertaining format for subtle messaging and product placement, while debates are useful in two-way communication, particularly with political issues.

The medium must complement the mess-age. The US military's helicopter leaflet drops in Afghanistan left peace-inspiring verses from the Quran strewn on the ground covered in dirt; considered blasphemous, the intended message was rendered impotent before the leaflet had even been picked up.

Attempts at humor can have mixed results and nuance is often lost in translation. Slogans can play on well-known phrases, but should avoid religious subjects. Ensure that pictures can be understood without accompanying text, as there may be potential for illiterate audiences to misunderstand. A picture of a peaceful protest on job shortages can be misinterpreted as a rally to revolution.

Negativity or fear mongering has limited effectiveness. Presenting alternative options is more empowering. Messaging tone should be uplifting and optimistic. Success stories with high resonance are more likely to promote action as they tap into one of the strongest human emotions - hope.

Scale down huge numbers to make them more tangible - "every day, X jobs are created by Y in Nigeria." Instead of using percentages, use statements that chime easily - one in three athletes use this product.

In seeking to change attitudes, traditional ROI indicators are not sufficient tools for impact measurement. This should be independently managed with clear baselines and KPIs measuring knowledge, attitude, and behavior changes, and robust enough to withstand external scrutiny. While it is often difficult to obtain this standard in the most permissive of research environments, a good understanding of local research capacity plus a healthy dose of creativity can create evaluation tools that are robust.

Above all, seek to understand, engage, and only then influence. This will ensure that your campaign is informed, supported and, most importantly, has impact.

Ryan Gawn is director of Stratagem International and a deployable civilian expert with the UK government's Stabilisation Unit.

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