Roger Fisk, who is credited with making Barack Obama a super brand, will speak at the International Government Communication Forum, which opens in Sharjah today. Image Credit: Supplied

SHARJAH: With the stage set for the eighth edition of the International Government Communication Forum (IGCF) 2019, which is opening in Sharjah tomorrow (March 20), several global leaders and government officials and communication experts are in town for the two-day conference.

Among them is Roger Fisk, the high profile marketing and communication strategist who is credited with playing a key behind-the-scenes role in making US President Barack Obama a super brand.

In an exclusive interview with Gulf News ahead of the forum, he talks of how governments can effectively motivate people to play a more active role in the development process, in keeping with the forum’s theme — Behavioural change towards human development.

What are you expecting from the IGCF?

I very much look forward to my participation in this important conference. The UAE is such a dynamic place, really at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia, and I hope to share a fraction of insight compared to the many things I hope to learn.

Generally speaking, why do some government strategies fail in communicating their objectives?

I don’t know that there are failures per se, but probably some serious missed opportunities. Governments need to shed the 20th century model of communications, where it is a one-way street of pushing out information and thinking that the exercise is done as soon as you hit send, and embrace the 21st century model where it is more about a relationship and dialogue than it is about information alone.

As communicators we want our audiences to react, and the question then is, are we prepared for the reaction? Have we made the budget and staffing decisions necessary to have a back and forth with our clients, customers, and voters? Another way to think of this is to focus on the person not the product; who is your audience, where do they get their news, where are they living their online lives? Then go out and connect with them where they are already conducting their online daily routines.

You’ve been involved in game-changing campaigns which are regarded as the best run presidential campaigns in the history of US politics. Did it occur to you at some point that your strong communication strategy embodied some risks?

I believe that honesty and hard work are the keys to any successful communications plan. We like to think that our customers or clients react to us logically, when in fact their core judgement is one that reflects our sincerity and authenticity. If someone is selling a faulty product or breaking the law, no communications plan is going to change that. Whereas, if a communications plan is honestly based on the value you provide then it will build trust. This also comes into play with social media since many people believe social media can help change perceptions. It really cannot, it can make good impressions better, or bad impressions worse, but if you are a polluter and you mount a social media campaign about how you are a responsible steward of the environment you are wasting your time and money. To your question on risks, I try to only get involved in efforts where the product (in a recent case meaning the product was Barack Obama) was authentic and really was who he presented himself as. Once I got to that point of understanding I was unconcerned with any risk of his being unable to deliver.

Do you believe governments can really influence change in peoples’ behaviour? Or a top-down approach/strategy is necessary to make a real change?

I put much more faith in bottom-up campaigns than I do in top-down. For example, if I wanted to get information out to the public about how common-sense preventive health care makes sense for their health, finances and professional life, I would look to engage people and voices that look and sound like the audience I envision. Simply having a government expert say “eat healthy food” is a much different exercise than showing how a young family on a tight budget can still eat healthy food and avoid health risks. Again, start with the person rather than the product. I call it thinking backwards and I have yet to encounter a situation where it does not work much better than simply pushing out information or having experts tell people to do something. This is probably the most exciting trend in communications and marketing and I’m proud to have played a small role in its development. Now I’m just trying to keep pace with how rapidly it is changing and becoming more effective.

Many believe you made Obama a super brand. Is branding government and political figures a double-edged sword?

Any marketing exercise like the American presidential campaign, one culminating in the decisions of more than 125 million Americans, requires that successful candidates become a brand. That is perhaps one of the only parallels between the current occupant and the former President; they both flanked their parties and ran largely personality-based campaigns, personal brands if you will, albeit with dramatically different policy underpinnings. The double edged sword concerns really come into play when the public brand is not a real reflection of the individual specifically or the campaign in general.

Do such campaigns work best if they are launched when people are in desperate need for it, or a crisis is imminent or it requires a swift action?

The best time to begin a campaign to change behaviour is long before the need to change that behaviour becomes critical. As government officials, we need to look at data and trends; what is the impact of poor health on an ageing population? How does that trend impact transportation? How does that trend impact financial issues like insurance and savings, and how does it change an individual’s ability to provide for children and grandchildren?

We cannot change behaviour once those issues are manifesting as immediate national challenges, and even if we could change behaviour it would not change quick enough to solve the problem. The policy teams of a government need to be able to extrapolate data and look at what the challenges are going to be in 10-15 years and start preparing for them now. Proactive change will always be much more effective, both in cost and impact, than reacting. Once you are reacting, you are losing.

Are humans predisposed to change, or does change require a gradual shift in culture?

This is a classic human dilemma; part of us by definition want to charge forward into the unknown and uncharted, whereas another part of ourselves wants to protect ourselves and enjoy traditions and comfort. Both instincts are healthy; without the first we would not have innovation and technology, without the second we would not have many of the more pleasant components of society like art, literature, music, or what we mainly call culture. The market and technology have an edge on government because they are more nimble and are better suited to capture the imagination, so when it comes to change in behaviour that a government may want to instigate it will most likely take longer to implement. It can be done, and taking an entrepreneurial approach to government communications is key to that success.

How do you respond to critics that see in government communication new approaches an increased tendency to invest in technological tools, rather than focusing on values?

Like it or not, technology is the highway for information, but it is very fair to say that there will always be a fascination and inherent interest in what is new. I see this with the dramatic increase of apps and smartphones; it makes it very easy for people to lean too heavily on the newest gadget, the most recently released model of a phone or application. I always stress that a combination of old and new is much more effective than just relying on the new, because the fact is a lot of people still get significant amounts of their daily information from 20th century modes like TV, newspapers and radio. A good communication strategy incorporates all those tools.

What is a successful communications campaign?

A successful communications campaign has to start with your target audience. Who are they? What are the pressures on their lives? What are the joys? What are the aspirations? Where do they shop? How do they conduct their finances? Answering questions like these is the foundation of any good communications plan, and then you go out and interact with that target demographic where they are already living their lives and getting their daily information — Roger Fisk.