Communications in a time of voting
As the 2024 national elections approach, communicators are faced with the challenge of making their brand message heard in a cluttered media environment
In what is likely to be a complex and noisy election year, hot-button issues are likely to include economic hardships, the energy crisis, relations with Russia, coalitions, voter turnout and the youth vote. These issues are likely to dominate the media landscape. But it’s not impossible to cut through the noise.
Brave brands have sometimes tapped into voting cycles by engaging with key election topics as part of their broader environmental, social, and corporate governance strategy. Uber, for instance, has offered riders discounted rides to and from polling stations, while Nando’s has gained a reputation for its political engagement, rewarding voter turnout and satirising key issues such as load-shedding.
There are international instances of brands effectively engaging with their audiences during an election year as well.
In the UK, Burger King drew nationwide attention during the European elections by introducing a novel form of protest: dousing right-wing politicians with milkshakes.
McDonald’s decided not to sell milkshakes on the day of Nigel Farage’s campaign in Edinburgh. Burger King responded with a playful tweet, assuring the people of Scotland that its milkshakes would remain available throughout. This tongue-in-cheek campaign garnered a staggering 350,000 engagements within just 24 hours.
In Germany, Lufthansa, in its #SayYesToEurope campaign, encouraged voter turnout in the European elections by transforming postal votes into entry passes to coveted spots such as the changing room of the Borussia Dortmund football club.
Political issues: when to engage
These campaigns have been mainly consumer focused and incentives based, but it takes a brave brand to engage in the important issues affecting a country. On home ground we’ve seen some business leaders taking up the challenge and engaging in serious conversations — even lobbying politicians to get behind a cause that supports a business imperative.
Discovery CEO Adrian Gore has shared his views on how the country can reach its potential if we take a united stand for excellence and against corruption and decline. Old Mutual CEO Iain Williamson has talked about South Africa’s three main risks of social unrest, grid failure and international relations. Standard Bank CEO Sim Tshabalala has spoken about the need for a fair climate transition at the Brics Business Forum.
The willingness of these corporate leaders to speak out is commendable. However, during an election period it becomes challenging for such statements to have an impact. No matter the corporate message, timing is critical then. The key is to plan ahead, be aware of important events relating to the elections, then schedule your own communications around that. Be flexible and willing to shift timings in response to breaking news events.
Brands can get their fingers burnt If they speak out and their statements are seen as too ambivalent or as taking the wrong side
Change the channel
Brands can look to have an impact during election season by taking an innovative platform approach.
Channels such as social media and online audio have grown in popularity in South Africa, particularly among young people. The country ranks in the top four across the continent for podcast listenership, and a higher proportion of people use social media for news in this country than in any other region in Africa. There’s an opportunity to leverage owned and independent digital platforms to get your messages out to prospective customers and brand audiences.
Traditional media, particularly radio, still has a large role to play. The key is to build an integrated channel strategy using each platform as an intentional part of the messaging matrix.
A systematic approach
At the same time, brands need to recognise the potential dangers that come with engaging in serious political conversations. South Africa remains a sometimes volatile environment, as the riots of 2021 showed. A June 2023 report by the Institute of Risk Management South Africa highlights the dangers of further unrest next year.
It can be risky for a brand to push an overtly political point of view. At the same time, staff and customers have higher expectations of the brands they align with these days. They want them to be more vocal about culture, values and the human rights issues of our time.
A company like Nike has risen to the challenge and taken a stance on the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. Others have even spoken out about the polarising Gaza-Israel war.
Such flashpoint issues can become even more topical during an election year. But brands can get their fingers burnt If they speak out and their statements are seen as too ambivalent or as taking the wrong side.
The key to deciding when and how to address controversial political issues is to take a systematic approach. Perhaps have a checklist: Does the issue have a direct effect on the company’s operations? Are its people affected? Who will be the spokespeople? Anticipate scenarios and prepare holding statements in accordance with them.
To ensure their voices are heard above the podium rhetoric but without doing any damage brands need to ensure their messaging is aligned with their own values and purposes. They must provide real benefits to their audiences by offering solutions or resources related to key election issues.
In the election context, it’s usually more universally relevant for a brand to focus on nonpartisan issues such as voter turnout and the youth vote, unless there is an issue that has a clear effect on the business or the customer base.
Communicating in an election year can be challenging, but with careful planning and strategic execution, brands can effectively engage with their audiences and ensure their voices are heard. As communicators we should see this as an exciting opportunity to have a meaningful effect for our brands and their audiences.
Troy Mocheko is director: Newsroom & Advisory at Ogilvy PR and Reahile Ramathesele is a strategist at Ogilvy PR.
The big take-out:
Communicating in an election year can be challenging, but with careful planning and strategic execution, brands can effectively engage with their audiences and ensure their voices are heard amidst the cluttered media environment.
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