Here’s a quick look at how strategic communications shifted the balance of power between governments and their publics at three flash points on three continents this week.
1. The Hungarian Refugee Referendum
The people of Hungary voted this week on whether to comply with the E.U.’s decree that they accept refugees fleeing to Europe from Syria and elsewhere. About 98 percent of voters chose to reject the refugees and flout the E.U.’s directive.
The vote’s outcome is aligned with weeks of strident anti-refugee rhetoric from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban’s rhetoric is part of a trend of vocal, right wing, nationalist parties gaining increased visibility throughout Europe in response to the global migrant crisis. Hungary’s plebiscite is being hailed by many as a “second Brexit.”
Like the Brexit campaign before it showed signs of success, the value of the Hungarian referendum was likely seen by its instigators as a communications strategy rather than a ploy to change policy. Orban has portrayed the referendum as a turning point in Hungary’s destiny, even though less than 40 percent of the country’s population turned out to vote, fewer than necessary to make the result legally binding.
For Orban and his allies, the vote has been an effective way to shore up their domestic power by setting themselves up in opposition to the centralized authority of the European Parliament in Brussels.
2. Colombia Votes Against Peace with FARC
Across the Atlantic from Europe, there was another plebiscite this week. The people of Colombia voted not to ratify a treaty negotiated by their government with the country’s FARC militias, who have been wreaking havoc inside Colombia’s borders since the early 1960s in the name of Marxist revolution.
Before the vote, analysts gave two-to-one odds that the Colombian people would ratify the treaty. But, as with Brexit, the majority of authoritative predictions were wrong about what ended up being a very close vote. The margin was less than one half of one percent.
Colombian voters rejected the treaty even though both FARC and the Colombian government favored and publicly supported it. Despite a major public relations eventthat convened FARC members in the jungle for a concert series and meetings with encamped journalists, and even after wide distribution of professionally produced videos showing FARC members engaged in peaceful, domestic activities, the Colombian public remained unmoved.
Like Brexit, the Colombian plebiscite demonstrates that voting publics are growing immune to long-used tactics of persuasion, and that most polling methods and the models used to analyze them have yet to catch up with how people actually form and express their opinions in 2016.
3. The Saudis Switch to the Gregorian Calendar
By using oil revenue to supplement the incomes of its citizens, the Saudi government has long enjoyed a stable and popular domestic reputation. But with global oil prices falling, the government has embarked on an ambitious campaign to diversify the nation’s economy and cut costs without causing too much popular anxiety.
That formidable goal was made even more difficult this week when it was announced that Saudi government employees would be paid monthly according to the Western solar calendar rather than the traditional Islamic lunar calendar, which contains 11 additional days. For Saudis on the government payroll, that amounts to more days worked per year for less pay.
Though the change, which was announced on October 3rd, hasn’t proved to be a strategic communications challenge for the government, it’s likely that social media, specifically Snapchat and Twitter, would play a central role in any damage control.
Saudi Arabian Twitter users, who are 2.4 million strong, represent 40 percent of all Twitter users in the Middle East, and more users in proportion to their total national population than any other country on earth. Saudi Arabia has more Snapchat users than any other country, and ranks seventh in the world for sheer number of social media users, period.
That’s no surprise for a country whose most dynamic political figure is a millennial crown prince, 30-year-old Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, half of whose subjects are under the age of 25. Social media is a major, if not the major conduit of interaction between bin Salman, his government and the Saudi public.
If you want a glimpse of the Middle East’s future, you won’t find it on Saudi national state television or in the pages of the country’s roughly two dozen newspapers. You’re likely to scroll past it on Twitter, react to it on Facebook, or see it over a series of snaps.
Look hard enough, and you will inevitably see that the boundaries between political strategies and communications strategies are hard to draw. In the case of the Hungarian vote, the two strategies may be one and the same. In the case of Saudi Arabia’s political and economic reforms, the difference between preferred forms of communication traces a border between generations and ideologies, and provides clues to the country’s future. And in the case of the Colombian vote, the failed efforts of the country’s rulers on both sides of the revolutionary divide could have been predicted by the outmoded political strategy they chose to employ.