How to influence difficult publics? Lessons from the Chilean media

25 May 2011

In any planning process, a significant proportion of the effort is dedicated towards developing influencing strategies for the most difficult publics. If you were using a tool like the Alignment, Interest and Influence Matrix (AIIM), this would be the actors in the Not Aligned but Interested quadrant.

After a recent visit to Zambia where I was told many times of think tanks concerned with the way in which the government may take criticism, I think this paper may be of great relevance.

David Hojman’s study of Semana Económica’s (Chilean newspaper El Mercurio’s editorial page) policy influencing strategy offers some lessons and practical advice.+

A recent article in reminded me of it. “The Influencing Machine”: How the media works, is a comic book from Brooke Gladstone, co-host of “On the Media“. In it, she tackles a series of key historical events to explain the workings of the media –its dilemmas, challenges and opportunities: but mostly, its realities.

Hojman’s is a more academic approach to the workings of the media. In his paper he attempts to answer the following questions:

  • What were the messages that Semana Económica (SE) was trying to put forward?
  • Did the messaged change over time? What were the patterns of this change? How were they related to the acquisition of new information?
  • Why did SE identify some individuals?
  • Who were the messages addressed to, what were the messages objectives, and were the messages successful in achieving their objectives?

In developing the theoretical framework he explored repeated cooperative gamesinformational lobbies, asymmetric information gamessignalling games, and strategic information transmission. All of these analyse, in different ways, the relations between the sender and the receiver of a strategic message.

He assumed that even though the sender and the receiver have different agendas there must be some overlap for there to be communication (this goes hand in hand with views that there is no actual gap between research and policy). And so he considers the following questions:

  • What do they have in common?
  • What is the cost of sending the message?
  • How much is at stake for the sender?
  • And what are the receiver prior beliefs, both about the message subject matter and about the sender?

His interpretation of the theory and answers to these questions suggests that: The outcome of the interaction between the sender and he receiver could be either: no collaboration or collaboration, and as long as collaboration is preferred, the sender will communicate and the receiver will receive. Now, the receiver might not do what it is told to do, but the sender, if the sender is smart, will not pressure too much. And it will not desist in its communications because it recognises that, in some cases, some message is better than silence.

In his study, the sender is SE and Chile’s centre-left coalition government (that took power in the 1990s after Chile returned to democracy) is the receiver. His answers to the questions posed above provide useful lessons and advice:

  • What were the messages that SE was trying to put forward?

The messages put forward were consistent and specific. Together they represented a strong argument. Hojman summarises the key message as: “You are doing well, but you could be doing even better”. More specifically, SE advocated for:

    1. The labour market must be flexible
    2. Taxes should be low
    3. The Chilean economy should be more open to international trade
    4. There should be more privatisations
    5. Some of the current government measures against poverty and inequality may be counterproductive
    6. Financial modernization and the liberalization of the capital account are urgent tasks
  • Did the messages change over time? What were the patterns of this change? How were they related to the acquisition of new information?

This is an interesting question. Should a think tank maintain the same message, or should this be tailored to specific moments or cycles? SE used several approaches.

Seasonality was an important aspect of the strategy –changing the messages to coincide with real processes and events. While the budget was being prepared (August to September) SE would write about lower taxes and less government expenditure. In October or November the comments would reflect the editor’s disappointment at the budget.

Also some seasonality was observed following annual official announcement of GDP, growth and balance of payments results, when SE would show its disappointment.

However, disappointment was always inviting rather than insulting. The editorialists did not want to lose the sensitive (opposing –the centre-left coalition sympathisers) part of SE’s readership. So after hardening a position, they would then soften it up after a while.

An interesting dynamic in any information lobbying process is that as it progresses, more information becomes available –about the sender, the receivers, about themselves (and even the public gains more about them too). For example, SE learned that the GDP estimates produced by the government were always underestimated so that it could resist pressures to spend more –and because if they were in fact higher it was then able spend the extra money freely.

This type of learning is different form what is behind cyclical messages like the ones about the budget.

SE also learned that although the government agreed the need to reduce tariffs for agricultural products it was unable to do it for political reasons; and that the only times it could was when there was a perception by the general public that this was necessary to, for instance, secure an important trade deal that public agreed with.

The process also implies learning by the SE about itself and how the message changes its users –from ethical solutions to drug trafficking to liberalizing the trade.

As a consequence, SE changed its message over time.

  • Why did SE identify some individuals?

Individuals were singled out when a policy measure had been adopted or proposed by them and that the editorialist approved off. However, if it disapproved with a policy it was hardly ever personalised.

Individuals were never praised in isolation of a policy. This provided clear signals to policymakers who wanted positive references in the media but did not alienate those who did not follow the SE line.

  • Who were the messages addressed to, what were the messages objectives, and were the messages successful in achieving their objectives?

The messages had several objectives: to transmit information, to affect and change economic policy in the short term, to educate and form opinion in a longer term perspective, to congratulate those who have designed or implemented any particular policies that meet with the editorialist’s approval, and to contribute to the creation of strategic and tactical alliances in support of particular policies, over and above narrow political affiliations.

How successful were they? The only clear success identified by Hojman was SE’s call, on October 1994, for more checks and controls on government expenditure by congress; almost a year later, on September 1995, SE was able to report that this had happened.

In the other cases where a policy promoted by SE was adopted it was not possible to say whether this was because of SE or if the government would have done it anyway. Because of the internal dynamics of the coalition government, it is not possible to isolate the role of this particular actor.

A key aspect of SE’s strategy was not what it said but what it did not say, and why. This had a significant effect on the relationship between SE and the government.

Above all, SE showed that it was possible for two agendas (that of the centre-left and the right) to overlap. Its cyclical and more learned interventions provided the government with clear signals of how to be rewarded but gave it the confidence that it would not be punished (or criticised) randomly.

For many newspapers in developing countries where the relationship with the government is clearly confrontational SE’s experience offers direct lessons. Many think tanks could learn from it, too.