While American campaign professionals are adapting their tactics to COVID-19 by shifting resources online, there are a number of countries where that switch isn't as easy because access to digital infrastructure is nowhere near as broad as it is here and in parts of Europe.
Take Burundi and Malawi. These African countries will be holding elections on 20 May and 2 July respectively. In Burundi, internet penetration is estimated at 9.9 percent while social media penetration is estimated at 4.5 percent.
In Malawi, the relevant figures are 15 percent and 2.7 percent. Compare this to America’s estimated internet penetration of 87 percent and estimated social penetration of 70 percent. In Poland – where there will be an election on 10 May – estimated internet penetration is 81 percent and estimated social media penetration is 50 percent.
So what do campaign managers in developing countries do when social distancing becomes the new normal and your two most effective campaign tools – rallies and door-to-door campaigning – are no longer possible?
You certainly don’t suspend campaigning and rely on the limited earned and paid media you can generate, particularly in countries where there are little-to-no genuine independent national broadcast outlets. Rather, campaigners should innovate to achieve their objectives through different means. And it may be simpler than many think. Here are some tips:
Even before COVID-19 upended our world, it could be argued that campaigns neglected radio, much to their detriment. Radio, particularly regional/community radio, should be a massive focus for campaigns.
Getting a candidate or party leader on radio shows is a must right now, particularly given that most voters are at home now. In many countries, community and regional radio have a lot of dead time to fill and may welcome or encourage the opportunity to host candidates or party leaders on shows.
There are numerous chat and call-in shows on community and regional radio. Campaigns should be empowering their volunteers to call into radio chat shows and drive campaign messaging.
In the same vein, volunteers should be writing letters to newspapers (national, regional and community) as well as sending texts and whats app messages to shows on radio and television.
Shift from foot canvassing to tele-canvassing (phone banking)
Campaigns should be scaling up phone capacity to replace door-to-door interactions. Volunteers and party staffers should be empowered and enabled to canvass voters remotely through virtual phone banks. Although tele-canvassing, or virtual canvassing, may not be as effective as foot canvassing in terms of persuasion, it is better than no canvassing at the moment. During COVID-19, it should also be adapted to serve a public information purpose and can also provide much needed comfort and human contact for people living on their own.
Invest in bulk messaging
Bulk texting from the candidate or the campaign can be effective if used sparingly, linking voters to content from the campaign. The ability for volunteers and staffers to respond to messages is vital and will be welcomed by voters, eager for interactivity.
Reach voters via robocalls
Although generally considered to be past their sell-by date in many jurisdictions — and illegal for campaigns to do in others — robocalls have proven to be very effective in campaigns in developing countries. Again, utilizing robocalls to provide an information service about COVID-19 in addition to campaign messaging can only be beneficial.
Peer-to-Peer texting and WhatsApp
P2P texting is proving to be effective in America, and numerous case studies have demonstrated big returns for campaigns that utilize the tactic. During the pandemic, campaigns in developing countries can make great use of this for building voter relationships, recruiting volunteers, and fundraising. In some countries, traditional WhatsApp messaging and organizing WhatsApp groups may work better. Nevertheless, the P2P tactic is a must for campaigns.
You can still fundraise
Many campaigners may read the above and say: “Yes, all very well, but what about the cost?” Fundraising shouldn’t stop because of COVID-19. Yes, it’s tough. It’s always been tough in the developing world. But it’s not impossible.
There’s no reason whatsoever why campaigns cannot still conduct fundraising events via Zoom or other software platforms. In many respects, these virtual fundraising events may allow more donors to engage and interact with a candidate or party leader than at conventional events where often the candidate or leader’s time is hogged by a few individuals.
One thing candidates or leaders will have more of at this moment in time. They shouldn’t be wasting it. Call lists should be produced and candidates encouraged to spend a certain amount of time every day dialing for dollars. These calls don’t just have to be about asking for money. They should also be used to check-in with donors and maintain relationships.
Take steps to make your voters feel safe
As Election Day draws closer, campaigns will want to ensure they can generate a differential turnout. In these threatening times, turnout is going to be helped by campaigns taking steps to ensure voters feel safe. Where it’s possible for voting by mail, encourage as many voters eligible for this to use their right to a postal vote. Where special or advance voting is allowed, encourage as many of your voters to use this option to avoid long, crowded queues on Election Day.
Campaign managers and candidates should also be working with electoral commissions and authorities to ensure voting is safe for everyone that visits polling stations. Take inspiration from South Korea’s recent election and propose measures that include taping markings on the floor to demarcate a safe distance for those in line, compulsory mask-wearing, and the taking of temperatures by poll-workers at the doors of voting stations. Ask for electoral authorities to give voters disposable gloves for handling their ballots, and hand sanitizer when they leave.
A lack of access to the internet and social media does not mean campaigning has to stop in this COVID-19 time. Campaigns can reach their voters, deliver their messages, inspire action, take measures to encourage safety at polling stations, and win elections.
Jonathan Moakes is a VP at GQR where he heads up the firm’s international campaign, fundraising, and party building practices.