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Politics as unusual: in Jamaica, elections are becoming sensationalistic political spectacles. How can resource-limited organizations get an accurate picture of public opinion?

Like it or not, media marketing strategies used in the business and political worlds are becoming more and more similar. Today's political consultants--entrusted with the tricky task of trying to sell politicians and policies to fiche electorates--increasingly find themselves applying the same communication strategies that have worked well for the corporate world selling products to consumers.

Historically, this convergence of corporate and political communication strategies arrived first in the advanced industrial democracies--in Europe, the U.S., Japan and Australia. In the post-World War II period, rapid development in those countries of new technologies such as television, photocopying, faxing, personal computers and the Internet spawned an accelerating "telecommunications revolution," which, in turn, accelerated the process of globalization. While this electronic revolution in telecommunications has been slower to reach developing countries like Jamaica due to resource mitations, its impact is now unmistakable here as well. As elsewhere, business and political communication in Jamaica have come to resemble each other.

Of course, this was not always the case. For centuries, most of the communication between candidates and voters took place through the media of political parties and organized interest groups. Political practices were local, and political organizing was labor-intensive, rather than capital-intensive. Skillful organizing, exhaustive door-to-door footwork and mobilizing bodies to participate directly in key political events were the keys to victory. The central strategists and planners of that day were the party leaders and political bosses, who wielded most of the influence and orchestrated communication with the populace through word of mouth, banners, pamphlets and newspapers.

With the advent of advanced telecommunications technologies, however, what it takes to win politically changed dramatically. The influence of parties, interest groups and political bosses began to recede, upstaged by the rising professions of political consulting, opinion polling and image management.

Though there have been delays due to its impoverished, developing-nation status, Jamaica, like other democracies in Latin America and the Caribbean, has witnessed the slow, steady emergence of American-style postmodern politics. With the growing reliance among its middle and upper classes on television, computers, mobile phones and the Internet, the realities of Jamaican electoral politics are becoming more technological and more mass-mediated.

In this altered, electronic environment, strategically timed national opinion polls and symbolic media messages crafted by political consultants have become almost as important in shaping Jamaican voters' views of their world as the more tangible realities of economic conditions and class interests. Grassroots organizing and the material conditions of life still obviously matter--one is constantly reminded of the existence of widespread poverty, unemployment, crime and corruption. But the political momentum gained by Jamaican politicians in recent elections has been won through mass persuasion and through carefully staged televised political performances--not as a result of delivering tangible benefits (which are scarce) to the electorate. In postmodern electoral contests, a pivotal source of power and strategic advantage belongs to whoever "defines the reality"--that is, whoever is in a position to frame the media debates over social issues and determine which interpretations are appropriate to place on the national agenda for public consideration. He or she who "defines" (via opinion surveys and mass electronic media) wins.

Electronic trends

As University of Wisconsin political scientist Murray Edelman points out in Constructing the Political Spectacle, like it or not, in Jamaica as elsewhere, these postmodern-era elections are becoming sensationalistic political spectacles. Through tabloid-style media accounts, voters find themselves exposed daily to the results of computer-analyzed national opinion polls. A recent front-page story in the online version of the Jamaica Observer, for example, featured the sober findings of a national election poll, illustrated with brightly colored comic-book-style caricatures of Bruce Golding (leader of the opposition) as The Incredible Hulk and Portia Simpson-Miller (the prime minister) as Superwoman. As is becoming more common in Jamaican media, the front-page lead political story and the comic strips page had essentially merged.

These same postmodern e-trends can also be seen in television coverage of politics on the two major national stations, TVJ and CVM. As evidenced in the recent electoral contest between the Jamaica Labour Party and the People's National Party, "eye-witness" television news coverage tends to emphasize visual imagery and emotional appeals over the substance of rational public discourse. Political news tends to be dramatized, fragmented, personalized and reduced to sound bites. So-called campaign events, such as the recent televised Jamaica Labour Party and People's National Party conferences, tend to be staged rather than occur spontaneously. Political talk shows and issue debates are, in fact, heavily scripted, including body language and newsworthy sound bites. Emotional appeals tend to prevail over ideas, symbols over substance, personal images over public issues.

What are the implications of these trends for political consulting and opinion survey firms operating in the Caribbean? Staying competitive in an electronic-media-intense environment requires that one develop appropriate, cost-effective and well-integrated ways of conducting marketing and polling research, making full use of the available technologies, yet doing so on a lean budget. Maintaining this delicate balance becomes especially critical to success in less developed, more resource-limited countries such as Jamaica.

Specialized strategies

To address the underdeveloped social conditions that persist in much of Jamaica (and which paradoxically exist alongside the postmodern electronic realities), specialized strategies in polling and survey management have been developed by firms such as Behavioural and Market Research International (BMRI). BMRI's strategy combines principles of project management with several key elements of strategic management that have been used successfully over the years by Fortune 500 corporations. This hybrid approach is sometimes referred to as strategic polling and survey management (SPSM), and seems well suited to the needs of underdeveloped environments.

There are several lessons that business enterprises planning to conduct survey and/or polling exercises in the Caribbean can learn from BMRI's experiences with regard to use of SPSM in Jamaica. The strategy BMRI uses is participatory, has several integrative phases and often operates at multiple levels simultaneously.

First, a broad, inclusive focus group is convened with all relevant stakeholders: those who commissioned the project, those hired to design the survey instrument, those responsible for the overall study design, those who will be collecting the data and their supervisors, and a small sampling of those who could be described as typical interviewees or study participants. An initial draft of the survey instrument and the survey strategy (type, process, scheduling and so on) is developed and reviewed by all to ensure that the objectives and goals are met and will work well across all levels.

Once the instrument and the survey strategy are finalized, the next phase is the fieldwork. This is done using information and communication technologies wherever possible, such as GIS (geographic information systems) mapping and locating, and real-time data transfer protocols using wireless handheld and mobile devices. Coordination and communication are key ingredients during this phase, and a command center is established to facilitate these. From this command center, the project manager can control the many different tasks associated with orchestrating the project and keep it on track in terms of objectives, costs and deadlines. At this stage in the Jamaican context, special sampling techniques and interviewer training are required to overcome the problems of hard-to-reach low-income respondents, illiteracy and the varying dialects spoken on different parts of the island.

After the data are collected, the data entry phase begins. This typically requires that the project manager assemble completed instruments from the field and organize the data entry tasks in such a way as to maximize on time. A small team of trained data entry clerks digitizes the data, which are then compiled using software such as the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences.

Finally, various statistical analyses of the data are undertaken, and the relevant tables and graphs generated, based on deliverables. In some cases, depending on the project purpose and design, this final phase may instead involve the use of qualitative-analysis computer programs, if the data include interviews or language-related observations. Throughout this entire process, various quality assurance checks are done, from field visits to data-screening checks.

This electronic-media-intensive SPSM approach to marketing and polling research has been applied successfully in Jamaica to:

* Opinion polls for a prominent national newspaper (the Jamaica Observer's Stone Polls).

* Biannual polls for the local university (the Jamaica Leadership and Governance polls sponsored by the Centre for Leadership and Governance at the University of the West Indies).

* National polls for the Jamaica Economy Project.

* Consumer marketing surveys for private companies.

Because it consciously and intentionally addresses the demands of today's electronic-media--intense political and business environments, SPSM is a helpful strategy in generating accurate, reliable data on a timely basis, and is an especially valuable management tool in less developed contexts such as Jamaica, where resources will inevitably be limited.

what is spsm?

Strategic polling and survey management (SPSM) is that set of logistical processes and activities that are used to effectively manage and negotiate the resources, the environmental circumstances and the core objectives of a polling/survey exercise within time, scope, quality and cost parameters. SPSM typically involves crafting an integrated strategy designed to implement, execute, control and evaluate the planned survey exercise.

about the authors

Lawrence Alfred Powell, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer at the University of the West Indies, where he acts as polling director for the Centre for Leadership and Governance. He also writes the national opinion questions for the Jamaica Observer's Stone Polls.

Lloyd Waller, Ph.D., is a lecturer in qualitative and quantitative methodology at the University of the West Indies. He serves as project manager for Behavioural and Market Research International and for the Centre for Leadership and Governance, and coordinates the fieldwork for the national Stone Polls.
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Title Annotation:SPECIAL REPORT: Latin America and the Caribbean
Author:Waller, Lloyd
Publication:Communication World
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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