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A game of perceptions

EACH time a product is launched by a company, the latter’s communication strategy is critical to ensuring the product’s success. It is this strategy that helps the product become a brand. Politics is no different. The Imran Khan brand has triumphed, and this success has allowed the PTI, that initially had a single seat in parliament, to morph into a national party.

It is a well-known fact that Khan and the PTI have made the best possible use of social media and the various tools it offers to undertake their brand-building exercise and propaganda. They have smartly tapped into the educated urban middle class, while a supportive national media helped prop up the party until it came to power. Now a segment of the media — the usual suspects — is still supporting it and is also accused of twisting the news and facts to suit the PTI’s narrative.

Behind this populism is the inorganic as well as the organic proliferation of digital content in support of Imran Khan, which has helped build positive perceptions about him. Although all leading political parties — the PML-N, PTI and the PPP — are known to have robust social media communication teams, it is the PTI that has outshone the other two in ways that are good and bad. The PTI has successfully projected its leader’s narrative but, in doing so, has also been accused of stooping low and setting a precedent for unsavoury exchanges and online attacks through the army of trolls at its disposal.

The tide is against the PML-N and its allies on the digital front. Rarely will anyone see a post, a reel, or a video snippet that praises the PML-N leadership or highlights any of its governance endeavours. Conversely, what we see are terabytes of digital content that mock the new ruling party’s leadership as well as the allies. Their statements are taken out of context while Khan is painted as a political messiah on a number of social media platforms; the rest of the parties are shown as his arch-nemesis.

It is a distorted ratio. The reasons are clear: a large section of the youth relates to the narrative being promoted and partakes organically in generating content and conversations on social media platforms that it is familiar with; this is in addition to the organised efforts of the PTI’s social media team and troll farms.

Rarely will anyone see a post, a reel or a video snippet that praises the PML-N leadership or highlights any of its governance endeavours.

The new coalition government faces a number of difficult tasks. Among them is the perception challenge as the allies navigate their way to survival and eventual delivery. In fact, it is a challenge that all future governments will need to tackle.

Despite the efforts of its social media team, the PML-N’s communication strategy has yet to realise its goals or even effectively tap into the urban class. The party’s voters are said to mainly comprise the semi-urban and rural conservative strata and the 40-plus age bracket. The party has largely chosen to reach the public through conventional means of political interaction.

What has been missing so far is a cohesive focus on rebuilding its brand and repositioning itself as a political force. The others have already shown what they stand for: the PTI has depicted itself as a crusader against corruption, and the PPP as the guardian of constitutional democracy.

The ‘N’ (Nawaz) in PML-N represents the brand that brings in the votes. The junior Sharif, meanwhile, has been perceived as the administrator who delivers. In fact, it was the administrative prowess of the younger Sharif that proved to be the cornerstone of the PML-N’s populist support in Punjab. With the election of the new chief minister of Punjab, the second generation of Sharif politicians is now emerging. As was the case previously, two Sharifs once again occupy the seat of power in the capital and Pakistan’s largest province. The elder of the two has adequate political capital and a positive reputation to build upon in the top office. However, the second-generation Hamza Sharif, although known for ensuring a politically sound administrative structure for the party in the province, has yet to prove himself in the court of public opinion.

How the party will navigate this complexity remains to be seen, both in terms of performance and perceptions.

In the age of social media, disinformation and fake news have become the norm. Navigating the web of narratives is an art which the current government has not yet mastered, as every time the PTI issues a political statement or forcefully builds upon its narrative of ‘corruption’ or ‘foreign conspiracy’, the new rulers seem unable to counter it with equal vigour, or wisdom, playing right into the hands of their rivals who are then in a position to control the discussion, and indeed, do so.

The PML-N’s challenge is not an easy one as the narrative that is being spun is itself dangerous, and it is necessary to ensure that political players avoid using the religion card — they exploited it in the case of the unfortunate Madina incident — especially at a time when there is increasing polarisation in society and emotions are running high.

The PTI has played its cards well by rousing its supporters and then cashing in on their anger and sympathy after the ouster of their leader from the top office. On the back foot at the moment, the new government needs a coherent strategy to dominate the national discourse.

Social media has taken the world by storm and the government can only make its communication strategies effective by learning to handle with ingenuity, competence and wisdom the tools which it offers. In this game, political and administrative performance will not be enough; the PML-N’s success will depend on how it uses its brand to set the tone and drive the discussion in a rational manner.

email: muhammadrahathussain@gmail.com

Rahat Hussain, "A game of perceptions," Dawn. 2022-05-07.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political aspects , Political parties , Political leaders