Having spent nearly a fortnight in Berlin Germany at the invitation of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) Media Program on a political bloggers study and dialogue tour, I wish to share some lessons on political communication.

Zambia goes to the polls on August 11, 2016 in an election never before experienced in the country’s history. This is because for the first time Zambians will have to elect a President with a threshold of 50 + 1 percent votes – the first of its kind since the country returned to multi-party politics. In addition to this the position of mayor is now electable and Zambia will also host a referendum on the bill of rights alongside the general elections.

The political parties in Zambia require excellent mass communication skills and tools to enable them to effectively reach out to all Zambians. Our interaction with communication staff from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Berlin was insightful.

Mobile first
The penetration of mobile telecommunication technology among populations across the world is at a record high. The value of transmitting messages using the mobile phone is too big to ignore. With the increased access to internet using mobile devices especially in Africa the ‘mobile first’ principle is timely and spot on as espoused by Mr Bertil Wenger.

African governments are particularly interested in finding better ways of controlling the transmission of information using mobile phones, particularly during elections. As Zambia moves towards the polls in August, the country’s electoral body, the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), has banned the use of mobile phones in the upcoming elections. The commission justified the ban of cell phones in polling stations by stating that its experience in the past showed that some voters took photographs of their marked ballot papers and published them on social media, thus compromising the secrecy of the vote and this was considered a form of campaigning which was prohibited on poll day.

Civil society and opposition political parties however took this directive as an infringement on voters’ rights since the constitution guaranteed freedom of expression. This decision is widely criticized for having been arrived at without prior consultation with all stakeholders.

Integrated and coherent communication
The relationship between the governing party Germany and the government and chancellor is professional and integrated. This allows for a synthesis between the government programmes and communication and those of the party. In many African countries, Zambia included, the political parties fail to retain professional staff in their communications units, as working for a political party is widely viewed as unprofessional conduct and some journalists and media trainers who have provided communication support to political parties have had difficulties retaining employment in public institutions. Others have lost employment for alleged partisan affiliation.

  • Social media priority
    The CDU has made some impressive innovations in working with social media including the famous Angela Merkel app that brings people closer to their leader and allows them to interact with her using a phone application. This is an area of social media utilization that political communicators in Zambia are yet to explore.
  • Personal and authentic
    Social media communication using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flicker and many other social media platforms must speak to the audience members at a personal level. The content must be original and targeted and where content is acquired elsewhere correct attribution is necessary.
  • Fast and exclusive
    One of the biggest advantages that social media communication has is instant reach and instant feedback. The political parties seeking to sell their manifesto information to the public need to capitalize on this quality as they cover public meetings and issues creative and exclusive statements from their leaders.
  • Interactive/ call to action
    It is vitally important to gauge how well a political message has been received and understood by interacting with followers and readers on various platforms. It allows you to correct your mistakes and ensure that you are been correctly understood. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to moderate content on social media platforms.

Holding politicians to account  

The media, including online bloggers, have a huge responsible to hold politicians to account. The African bloggers participated in the re:publica conference in Berlin and met many journalists and “netizens” who are making a difference by publishing stories that not only expose wrongs in governance, but also enlighten citizens on their civic responsibilities in a creative and interactive manner.

With a focus on data security and privacy online insightful, sessions like the one with wikileaks founder Snowden via live feed from Russia shed light on the important role of whistle-blowers and how journalists can use this information now publicly available to hold their governments accountable.