What I learned from Maltese election campaigns

During my sabbatical last year I had plenty of time to think about my election campaign. It’s easy to say I failed because I didn’t win a seat in the European Parliament but what did I gain from the experience? ? This article outlines the top 10 lessons I learned from running an election campaign in Malta.

TL;DR: These lessons will let you start an election campaign on a better footing.

10 Lessons learned

In no particular order, here are the top 10 lessons I learned after my campaign. You may be contemplating an election campaign of your own. Whether that is in Malta or not you’ll find most of these points will resonate with you.

  • There are no election-related support services. Many countries have organisations specialised in election services. Polling, PR, administrative services – that sort of thing. In Malta, these are embedded in political parties which means anyone from the outside has to start from scratch. It also means you can compete with the main parties only if you have the same resources they do.
    Moral: You need to know about elections and how they function before you even get to square 1. You cannot rely on external support.
  • The press is government-controlled. I can’t complain that I never got interviewed on One TV or Net TV because they’re owned by political parties. The same goes for their radio stations and newspapers. Neither of them would give any oxygen to a competitor. The other media are more independent. From my interaction with some of the fine men and women who work in these newsrooms I would agree they are independent. Yet they depend on sales and airtime so they run stories that garner revenue. Since politics is tribal, most of the news is too because this attracts eyeballs.
    Moral: You need an effective mechanism to communicate if the press is going to ignore you.
  • The press (sometimes) conceals its lack of independence. A few newsrooms approached me to pay them to carry my articles. My first reaction was – if I’m producing content, they should pay me. They didn’t see it this way.
    I refused.
    Did these media channels avoid covering me or my campaign because of this? Who knows?
    Was I naive to think the press is there to report on stuff?
    All I can say is if you see articles and interviews in some press, the subject wrote it. It’s not ‘independent reporting’ in any form.
    Moral: You need to understand the forces behind the media before you can trust them (This is the same point as the one above)
  • I spent too much time focusing on things that weren’t actually important. On the 3rd day of my campaign I got complaints that my material was not available in Maltese. I had always written in English because I write for an international audience. After all, European elections are for residents not citizens. These complaints embarrassed me because I didn’t want to offend people. (The language issue is sensitive in Malta). I took the time and expense of converting all my material and website into Maltese. By the end of the campaign, my online analytics were brutal about the number of people who used my Maltese-language materials. 3. Only 3 people took a look at that stuff.
    Moral: Rather than pander to the sensitivity of any issue you need to focus on what matters. It’s ironic, but this is a clear example of favouring raw data over emotion, or #brainNotEgo.
  • The larger parties will drive the agenda. On several occasions I noted the major parties didn’t talk about European related matters. This was puzzling. If we’re meant to choose people to do stuff in Europe for Malta shouldn’t we know what they think about European matters? The parties leveraged the tribal nature of Maltese politics to turn the election into a PL vs PN debate. I should have got in on the act. Instead I stood my ground and kept talking about European issues and politics. My closing speech on the televised debates pointed this out.
    Moral: If you want to beat them, you have to play their game first.
  • Human nature is more telling than any survey. During the campaign I reached out to every candidate. I wanted to meet them and chat. I figured we’d run into each other along the way so why not get to know each other? Candidates from smaller parties and independent parties all took the time to chat and share ideas. I enjoyed that and still am in touch with some of them. Candidates from the two main parties treated me in different ways. One party’s candidates explained they were busy, they’d love to, etc. etc. They were always polite when we met in person but that’s as far as it went. The other party’s candidates kept their distance. They all agreed to meet me but always cancelled with some excuse or another. That’s even if they bothered to reply to my messages. If I was a paranoid person I’d suggest they were told to stay away from me.
    Moral: Noting how people treat you goes a long way to identifying how that party thinks of you.
  • The value of TV appearances is not what it used to be. I took part in all the electoral debates on Television Malta. It was fun to be there and see how things work. The people I met there are all consummate professionals. Judging by the metrics on my website and social channels, there was no significant change from the electorate following my TV appearances. I got more reactions from my own articles and social campaigns. I don’t think it would have made sense to ignore the TV opportunities, but they’re not the be-all and end-all some would have you believe.
    Moral: Knowing where to focus your energies is important, but all publicity is good.
  • People may be interested but talk is cheap. I was happy to meet people who were keen to help me out with my campaign. I can’t thank them enough. There were some who talked the talk but never walked the walk. In one case, someone promised me funding to mail brochures to households around the islands. Details kept changing till the last minute when it was too late to do anything. In the meantime I had gone to the expense of printing material for this mail shot.
    Moral: Talk is cheap. Actions matter.
  • Voting behaviour is complex and misunderstood. The vagaries of the Maltese political system means that people can vote for as many people as they like in order of preference. Many people were interested in what I had to say but would end their discussion by telling me they would give me a second-preference, not a first-preference vote. Whether they did or not is anyone’s guess. The value of 2nd preference votes is lower than a first preference one. Had I thought about this I would have spent more time pushing for first preference votes. On the other hand when I did, I had to go through lengthy explanations. I may have alienated more people than I convinced.
    Moral: Voting – like many things – is complex. Unless you can reduce this to a simple explanation, don’t bother.
  • Never underestimate the stupidity of online trolls. I did my best to keep online conversations civil. I’m aware there are trolls and there are genuine people commenting online. I met some of these people and had a lovely time with them too. The trolls, however, they’re mad. I can’t say if they’re all coordinated by the political parties or not but it’s hard to come across as sensible when arguing with someone who acts like they’ve a room-temperature IQ.
    Moral: Don’t let the bastards get you down.

There are a few other things worth writing about my election campaign and I may do that later. These 10 lessons are the key takeaways I have.

Some may to obvious to you, and some bear repeating.

Either way, an election campaign will start off on a better footing with these 10 lessons in mind.

Wouldn’t you agree?


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