Throughout the course of our elections-based messaging, several key takeaways, lessons learned, and questions for the future became clear. These included:
- As the days went on, it became clear that there are certain situations in which messages cannot or should not be used. While this issue has arisen previously and we have set guidelines to deal with this, new situations came to light during the week and deepened our understandings of these situations. These highlighted the importance of establishing clear guidelines based on our prior research and our new election-time experience going forward. These guidelines should outline instances and occasions when a message is not or might not be appropriate, and how to go about making that judgment call. Below are some examples of situations where messaging could in fact contribute to insecurity, rather than alleviate it.
- High-Risk Message: This is the first and most important situation where messages should not be sent, as it deals with the danger for a message to cause alarm or worsen situations on the ground. These are messages that would be sent to an entire area, even if the issue is localized, and could cause alarm. This category also includes messages that would be sent out after a certain time at night, which again risks causing alarm. SNA-K was careful to avoid sending messages that had the potential to worsen or aggravate a situation. In cases where the concerns were geographically very isolated; or, where uncertainty was caused by thieves/common criminals taking advantage of the situation; or, finally, when an incident occurred late in the evening, SNA-K alerted security and continued to monitor the situation instead of sending a message. We noted that where people saw that we would report incidents and/or the potential for violence to security agencies, it also increased the reputation of SNA-K and the SMS. This represents an important factor for future exploration through research.
- Annoyance Factor: In order to create maximum impact from the messages, it is important that they are not sent so frequently as to become an annoyance. This includes reading the general mood. Tallying went on for days, and people became exhausted from hearing about the election. SNA-K was vigilant about not sending too many messages asking people to be patient, and instead, at one point sent all subscribers a message commending them and letting them know they were appreciated. We suspected that any more messages asking people to continue to stay patient was likely to backfire, and prompt people to unsubscribe or to disregard our messages.
- Organizational/Perceptions Risk: As situations evolve, it is important to be very, very, careful about being perceived to be partisan. In the coming days/weeks as the court cases are decided, this becomes even more important. One example is that after the results were announced, it was necessary to send a 160-character message to urge people to celebrate or react responsibly, without seeming to favor either side. As communities become more and more polarized in the coming days ahead of the court judgment, being sensitive about this type of dual targeting for multiple groups at the same time will become even more critical.
- Some amount of silence is crucial. In order for the messages to have an impact, they need to arrive at the right time, when people are most likely to pay attention to them. In extreme cases, messages need to be able to interrupt disruptive activity, including spreading of rumors. This involves understanding and calculating the limited social capital and airtime that SNA-K has as an organization to get people to pay attention to us. Messages cannot be sent out every time there is tension; instead, they should be used strategically so as to have maximum impact.
- Targeting is Key. People responded very well to messages that included the name of the place they were located. This personalised the messages and added to the sense that they were not alone, and their areas were being watched. In the future, as platforms become more sophisticated, it might make sense to have functionality whereby there is a “fill-in-the-blank field” for location, for example, “let us keep peace [location]” and the field would automatically be filled in from the database. This would hasten the process of message sending.
- Messages in combination with on-the-ground work and effective collaboration with relevant institutions is key. Our work throughout the election process showed the importance of combining messaging with on the ground work. This was demonstrated by the situations in which messages were not appropriate, but which SNA-K was able to report to relevant institutions such as the NSC for rapid response. This helped both to mitigate conflict and to increase SNA-K’s reputation in the target communities. One medium or approach is never going to be effective for every possible situation – it is important to have an awareness of appropriate responses to specific situations, and to work closely with partners and relevant institutions to help ensure that there is a relevant response to each issue that arises.
We hope that this blog post can serve as a starting point for conversations around the nuances of messaging about peace and using text messages as a medium. Our next blog in this three-part series will share some of the raw feedback we received with regards to our messaging around the March 4th elections.