We met Grant Haskin, Communications Director for the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) in South Africa, and Jeffrey Donaldson, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP for Lagan Valley and WFD Governor, to see how their parties’ partnership has helped strengthen the ACDP’s approach to communications ahead of the elections scheduled for later this year.
How do the parties in the Multi-Party Office build on their established sister-party relationships? Jeffrey Donaldson (JD): A lot of work in the past has focused on the sister party relationships. However, the Lib Dems and the ALN, for example, are not just working with one party but across a network. The Northern Ireland parties tend to have a single sister-party relationship, so the DUP has been supporting the capacity of the ACDP in South Africa for several years. Our current project is focused on improving their communication strategy. Grant, who is Communications Director of the ACDP, will be looking at the relationship between the Westminster team, the team in the Northern Ireland Assembly and at the local level. He will be looking at the consistency of communication output across the three different levels, which are parallel to the South Africa system.
What have you learnt from the DUP about communicating the ACDP message?
Grant Haskin (GH): There is definitely a lot we can learn, as our electorate in South Africa of course has a lot less experience with democracy in general. We are a young democracy; people are not used to voting, they are not used to translating a belief system into a vote. We are trying to bring a new message that changes that. We want to understand how the DUP over time has substantially increased their support base from a small number of MPs to having a majority – that is our ultimate goal. Our relationship with the DUP has come a long way. Our election results haven’t shown it yet, but the way we do things internally has changed substantially over the years.
Listening is essential for effective communication – how do you plan to engage with perspective voters?
GH: Our own members and our candidates need to know what we are doing and why we are doing it. The people who should vote for us need to understand why, and those who are voting for us must see the new ACDP as nothing different to what they have voted for in the past. Keeping them on the same page is a tricky business!
JD: The challenge we face is that we live in a world that is changing. The world is becoming more secular and less influenced by a faith approach to things. Issues like the economy, like healthcare, like education, are important. People know where we stand traditionally on the faith-based issues, but we don’t put them at the front and centre. If the ACDP are going to reverse the decline that mirrors the reluctance of voters to vote on their faith alone, they must demonstrate what they are going to do on the economy, on health, on education. I think the ACDP needs to get out of, as the DUP had to, the image of being a Christian party. It has to get out there and compete with other parties on socio-economic issues.
How can you keep the ACDP’s traditional support base happy and address the broader concerns of other citizens?
GH: We will do it in a way that does not alienate our traditional support base who expect us to focus on the moral issues. When they don’t hear us saying that they get worried, it’s a balancing act. Ahead of this election we have changed how the ACDP approaches the President’s State of the Nation address and the various budget votes. We have come out very strongly on socio-economic issues, like the drought in South Africa. People are hearing us on issues that they have not heard us on yet. They are seeing us as looking after the people and putting the people first in our approach to governing, instead of the perception that we are putting the Bible first.
In what ways have the ACDP incorporated the support from WFD, and the DUP in particular, into their approach ahead of the elections?
GH: I have already seen an important change in the way the ACDP is gearing itself up for these elections as a result of the focus that this programme is putting on media and communications. We are seeing members and political office bearers who are much more aware of their role. They are all being more consistent with each other. We use social media more consistently; we developed a social media policy and brought it across the country.
The party you experience in one city in South Africa is the same you should experience in a rural village. The capacity that this programme has given me to engage with the rural municipality, the village and the town is important. Now because of the programme I can engage with all of them, and take them from where they are to an improved space of engaging internally and externally within the party. We are training them on how to prepare for media interviews and conduct research; basic things that they never had the opportunity to learn. This has already improved our sense of political confidence going into the election.