By Kevin Anderson*
Politicians love to talk, but apart from periodic elections – if you’re lucky – how are the people heard?
After 20 years of rule by the same party, Salvadorans voted in a new party in 2009, but the election brought little change. Instead of waiting for the next election for people to make their voices heard through their votes, Orlando Alvarez, the creative director at the ad agency Publicidad Comercial Lowe & Partners, wanted to explore the possibilities of a digital-led advertising and engagement campaign. He approached news website El Faro with the idea of using Twitter to allow the citizens of El Salvador to voice their concerns directly to their political leaders.
Working with El Faro’s innovation manager Elmer Menjívar, Alvarez and his agency helped the news site develop a project that took advantage not just of the power of digital media, both El Faro’s website and social media, but also leveraged traditional media and advertising channels.
With a strong multi-channel marketing campaign and social media at its core, the campaign took in thousands of ideas to improve the country, engaging citizens in a novel way in their government.
The project shows how powerfully multi-platform projects can engage audiences no matter the media, and how the strengths of digital and traditional media can be combined to maximise effect.
Brainstorming how to engage the citizens of El Salvador
Traditionally, the media have been a one-way channel of communication, allowing political leaders to communicate to, or possibly more accurately at, the people.
“A newspaper, in this case a digital newspaper, always communicates what someone wants to say to the audience,” Alvarez said. They thought that they could reverse the roles and give the audience an opportunity to communicate their ideas to those “people who traditionally only give speeches, in this case, the government”, Alvarez added.
The advertising agency approached El Faro because it was “the only newspaper that could do something relevant … because of its reputation. You cannot do a campaign like this without the newspaper’s brand to back it up”.
From El Faro’s point of view, the timing of Alvarez’s idea couldn’t have been better because the digital newspaper had been wanting to figure out how social media fit with their brand of independent journalism, Menjívar said. They took Alvarez’s idea and ran with it.
“There is this global trend going on about citizens’ participation in journalism, and (El Faro) didn’t know if it would be a good idea for citizens to generate content for the newspaper and how to do it,” he added.
Citizen journalism has been a trend for years, and with the rise of social media and smartphones, more images, videos and updates that relate to current news stories are available. How would this project add value to what citizens were already saying? How would this project be focused so that El Faro could manage it?
Alvarez said, “(El Faro) didn’t want to make the mistake of putting citizens in the role of journalists, but instead let them be who they are.” They thought it would be more productive to simply let citizens be citizens and help them communicate their ideas to their leaders.
Key lesson: Don’t just follow the digital herd. It would have been too easy for El Faro to simply copy one of the many projects around the world developed by news organisations to let citizens have their say. Rather than simply copy an existing idea, they thought creatively about their goal of citizen participation in government and let that guide their thinking.
*Kevin Anderson is the editor and digital strategist for the Media Development Loan Fund’s Knowledge Bridge project. Read his full article here to learn more about how El Faro used humor to push their campaign and collected people’s tweets into a best-selling book. Watch a video below promoting El Faro’s campaign.
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.