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A comparison of public relations principles applied by political parties in campaign communication during a democratic election
Pambou, Renestine Itoumba
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In popular opinion political public relations practitioners have long been regarded as spin doctors. Their lane of actions is mostly viewed as propaganda and they are perceived as spin doctors who manipulate power-relations. The pervasive role of public relations in political campaigns cannot be denied as political actors rely on communication to reach their key stakeholders. While it can be used as an important tool that can mediate in these power relations, the facts remain in the case of this study that the political party campaign communication was rather reactive than strategic. The answer lays in the accurate application of the strategic nature and role of public relations. I believe that there is a strategic public relations role that is evident and has to be played in political party campaign communication. As a matter of fact, public relations strives to ensure an effective and efficient communication on behalf of its organisation. The purpose of this study was to explore the application of public relations principles in political parties’ campaign communication of the Democratic Alliance, in the context of three other political parties in a regional newspaper during the build-up to the 2014 South African general elections. Four distinct political parties were at the centre of this research, namely African National Congress, Democratic Alliance, Economic Freedom Fighters and Agang. Particular attention was given to the elite parties, African National Congress, and Democratic Alliance; the main environment of the study. It is true that political parties ‘communication with stakeholders reflects in essence public relations. Managing communication to promote the organisational agenda is to talk about issues important to both the public and the political party. This suggests that an effective political organisation will act on a two-way operation to build a common political position that influences public attitudes. Hence, a comparative case study was used as the strategy of inquiry. I conducted a content analysis of the political party campaign communication of the Democratic Alliance, covered in the Cape Times newspaper; as well as their election manifesto, to identify the public relations principles and strategies that were used. The daily newspapers were surveyed from January 8 to May 7, 2014. An overall of one hundred and forty-four related newspapers articles were analysed and formed the data for analysis. A close reading and counting of frequencies of varieties of themes in the newspaper revealed that the Democratic Alliance, as well as the African National congress, took a tactical and responsive approach, rather than a strategic and proactive approach, to their political party campaign communication. News coverage indicated that there was extensive counterpunching to other political parties ‘statuses, but very little promotion or management of the issues included in their election manifesto. Nkandla was the most controversial issue covered in the pre-election media coverage; while the proposed merger with AGANG; and the subsequent fall out was damaging to both political parties ‘reputation and relationship with voters. Therefore, more research on this topic needs to be undertaken, as public relations is crucial in translating public opinions to the organisation. In the political scope, this can serve as an attempt to adjust the socio-political environment to suit the political principles, as well as to help the political principles adjust to the environment by creating the right balance to mutual benefit an organisation and its publics that further ensures a real participatory democracy. Further studies should be done to investigate whether, the advocacy of the two-way symmetrical, as a way to central route to persuasion, along with the dialogical approach can impact on more effective decisions making, and ultimately create a more dynamic public sphere that seeks the resolution of socio-political conflicts. This new knowledge will lead to guidelines for public relations practitioners and can provide useful insights for political communication specialists.