Public relations : The role of perception management in Zim’s elections

Propaganda can be used as a tool for democratic and corporate manipulation of the population

When I entered the public relations profession, I was associated with the sobriquet “Spin Doctor”. I learned soon enough that it had nothing to do with cricket and it was being used less flatteringly. The term found fame through Nicholas Jones’ book Sultans of Spin, itself an interesting twist to the hit song Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits.

In the book, Jones skilfully explains the symbiotic relationship between politicians and the media, shedding light on the tactics used to shape narratives and control the flow of information.

The more palatable alternative to the term “spin”, is perception management. Perception management is controlling how people view something. It involves the strategic use of communication tools and techniques to influence how people think and feel about a particular subject.

PR, marketing, and political communication habitually resort to this practice.

Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky popularised the other related term “manufacturing consent” in their book of the same name.

According to the authors, this refers to the systematic manipulation of the media and public opinion to serve the interests of those in power.

The term that we are most used to is “propaganda”, which is often associated with politics of the gutter type. Interestingly, it has found currency in public relations and corporate communication.

Perception management seeks to shape people’s views. One cannot say the same about propaganda. Interchanging the terms is a precarious proposition.

Elections are important in a democracy, giving citizens the chance to choose their representatives. Edward Bernays, a founding father of PR, said “propaganda” is essential in a democratic society.

“Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country,” he said.

He argued that propaganda can be used as a tool for democratic and corporate manipulation of the population in his book.

Bernays believed that propaganda could be a force for good if it were truthful and directed towards goals that were positive for society.

However, the process is not always as straightforward as it seems, especially in countries like Zimbabwe, where the political landscape is often fraught with tension and uncertainty.

In such contexts, the role of perception management in PR is paramount, particularly in manufacturing consent during elections.

PR, at its core, is about managing relationships and communicating messages to build mutual understanding.

In the election process, PR can help shape public opinion, influence voter behaviour, and manage the perception of candidates, their campaigns, and political parties.

In Zimbabwe, like in many other countries, public consent is not simply given; it is manufactured through strategic perception management.

This involves the deliberate shaping of the public's understanding and interpretation of the political process, the candidates, and the issues at stake, creating a favourable disposition towards a particular candidate or party.

The role of PR in this process is multifaceted.

First, PR professionals help craft the narrative around the candidate.

This narrative, often built on the candidate's track record, promises and personality, is disseminated through various channels, including the media, campaign events, and social media.

This narrative helps to shape the public's perception of the candidate, influencing their voting decisions.

Second, PR plays a significant role in what we call “issue management”.

This involves identifying potential issues or controversies that could damage a candidate's image and crafting strategies to mitigate these risks.

This could involve pre-emptive actions such as clarifying the candidate's stance on contentious issues, or reactive strategies, such as managing crisis communication when a controversy arises.

Third, PR is crucial to stakeholder management. In an election, stakeholders include not only voters but also political allies, donors and the media.

“PR professionals help to manage these relationships, ensuring that they remain favourable and contribute positively to the candidate's image.”

In Zimbabwe, the political atmosphere is often very charged.

“PR’s role in managing perceptions under these circumstances becomes even more critical.”

This is true given the history of election-related controversies and allegations of electoral manipulation.

Here, PR not only helps to manage the image of the candidates but also contributes to creating a perception of a free and fair election process.

In a country where media freedom is not guaranteed, PR takes the middle road free from the labelling that has tarnished the climate in the country.

While media is said to be polarised into either state-owned or private, PR has become a vital tool for candidates and parties to communicate their messages directly to the public.

This involves not only traditional PR tactics, but also the strategic use of digital media and social networks, which have become increasingly influential in shaping public opinion.

The importance of perception management by PR in manufacturing consent during elections cannot be overstated.

They are pivotal in shaping the public's perception of the candidates and the election process, influencing voting decisions, and determining the outcome of the elections.

However, while PR can be a powerful tool for positive change, it can also be misused to manipulate public opinion and undermine the democratic process.

Therefore, it is crucial that ethical standards and a commitment to transparency and truthfulness guide the practice of PR in elections. We will examine this crucial aspect in a future article.

In conclusion, the role of PR in elections, particularly in Zimbabwe, is critical.

From crafting the candidate's narrative to managing issues and stakeholders and communicating the right messages to the public, PR plays an essential role in gaining consent during elections.

*Lenox Mhlanga is a strategic communications consultant with over 23 years of experience in the profession. He has worked for the World bank and International Monetary Fund, as well as blue chip clients inside and outside Zimbabwe. He is a mentor, facilitator, lecturer, and advisor, as well as PR thought leader. Mobile: +263 772 400 645 Email: [email protected]

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