Krešimir Macan, political marketing expert: The Opposition has Become a Democratic Decoration

Vučić does nothing different to what every woman does in the morning,and what we, men, do more or less – he “grooms”himself, hiding his flaws and emphasizing his virtues

Politicians’ backstage activities are one of the favourite topics in the domestic and international film. Still, our interviewee says that what happens in reality is sometimes more interesting than a movie. We talked to Krešimir Macan, one of the best political marketing experts in the region, about the changes in this segment that have never been so fast and how politicians adapt to new circumstances. Social media have created a new way of functioning that politicians need to adapt to, but the question is whether they are ready for it. We also spoke to Mr. Macan if what was portrayed in the regional series “Novine” was a reflection of the reality. “Every good series has to be have footing in reality and of course, for dramaturgical purposes, some parts are amplified and made up. “Novine” is the Croatian version. HBO’s “The Loudest Voice” about the Fox News founder Robert Ailes is also fascinating. If people look at both series they will understand what reality is. We do not live in an ideal world, and we have to know that these kinds of things have been happening since the beginning of time,” Krešimir Macan says the beginning of our conversation, adding that he started to engage in political marketing because of the BBC’s original series “House of Cards” .

How much effort to the politicians in our region invest in controlling the media and how much do they interfere with social media?

— There have always been attempts to control both the messages and the messengers. You can control the message, but it’s doubtful how many messengers you can control. In our region, the situation varies from country to country, and I have worked in every one of them. Until recently, Macedonia and Serbia were good examples of attempts at complete control, while allowing a small segment of media freedom; a portion of garden, if you will, that you show guests when they come around. It was a lot easier in the black-and-white world behind the Iron Curtain where everybody knew which side they were on. Corporate interests are often stronger than political interests. In the series “Novine”, you will find para-intelligence services, business and corruption and all of it is intertwined. The principle is the same – information is traded for interest. Social networks have brought change, Facebook has become an infrastructure. Facebook allowed independent media and movements to develop on its platform. Everything has escalated with the election of Trump in 2016 and the question of whether the Russians have funded the process. The world is changing more and faster than ever before and we need to adjust accordingly. What was done in terms of online political marketing before Trump is no longer valid. We have the largest communication channel where anyone can publish what they want, not just professionals. There are more challenges than ever for politics and the media. The only thing that will remain the same are marketing persuasion techniques and that’s how it’s going to be in the next 100 years. Still, everything else is changing dramatically. In Serbia, social networks are not as important for politics as they are in Croatia, with movements and parties being born on the social media platform. The global phenomenon where political movements emerge on social networks has been a reality in Croatia for some time. We constantly have about 20% of dissatisfied voters who would know what to say if a communication channel opened for them. I think that is yet to happen in Serbia. In Bosnia and Herzgovina, Naša Stranka (Our Party)communicates like that. In Croatia, I see a growing dissatisfaction that can be articulated through social networks. Every fifth voter has an alternative because Facebook cannot be controlled and the younger people do not even consume news from television but primarily from online sources. This is where politicians feel insecure for a good reason because they do not know how to function in the new reality. Television is still the primary channel for politics, but it will not be so in five to ten years.

You mentioned elections in America, which were based on social networks. How much are we lagging behind the world?

— We’re not lagging behind. Everything they did in America, I did the same with the Democratic Party in Serbia in the parliamentary elections the same year. Likewise, in the 2014 presidential campaign, we, in Croatia, had an escalation of fake news, where we saw anonymous web portals from foreign servers emerging. Trump knew exactly in which states he should win. He knew he had to demotivate black voters to go to the polls. For the first time ever there was polarization – the media split into left and right. Trump addressed only his audience; he did not care about others. All this leads to the polarization of the society and to communication no longer being a coincidence. Believing that someone will support someone because they have good ideas, that’s just naive.

Is this the reason why the number of right-wing movements is growing in Europe and the world and are coming to power? Did they master their target group?

— They are trying to. The point is that classical parties do not do their job – this is happening in Croatia, but also in many other countries such as Italy. Today, everyone says that the user is a God because today users have tools to influence decisions. The problem is that the parties don’t spend every day in the market, but rather every four years. They will disappear if they do not adapt. The old parties in Serbia are merely existing, except maybe for the Socialists. Serbia is the typical case of planned early elections. After that, the cycle is further extended and change comes more slowly.

There is a phenomenon in Serbia of the SNS and President Vučić being engaged a perpetual campaign. What do you think of that?

— If he works purposefully every day and he does, he informs those who care about him. He wants to gain masses of voters; he doesn’t want intellectuals.

There were lists of reputable intellectuals in Serbia who supported him. I don’t think that Vučić is only after gaining mass following.

— That’s what his image misses. Every great leader, or an autocrat, wants to have his or her circle of intellectuals around him. This is accomplished in various ways. I must say he did manage to win over Belgrade. He failed to do so for a long time, but it turned out that he still knew how placate Belgrade, while others lived off the old success thinking that “the intellectual Belgrade” voted smart. Well, it didn’t, because only one in five voters are considered intellectual and educated voters. So, 80% can vote as you wish if you exercise a smart policy.You say people don’t like Vučić but where is the proof of that? It seems to me that he is very selective in choosing what to give and to whom. He has set certain goals. If their lives were miserable, people would take it to the streets. Vučić works strategically and he takes advice from the best of the world. He grew an oneline bot system like a garden. Hierarchy-wise, this is the lowest level, but this is also a way of working with young people. In Croatia, many parties have lost young people entirely because they live differently than they used to. Vučić found a way to win them over, although the main draw here is perhaps the possibility of party-sponsored employment.

You say that he does certain favours to citizens which is why they are voting for him. The question then is, can political marketing also do a disservice?

— Yes, but not all the time. This has to fall apart at one point, which is why it is missing that element when people are not afraid of speaking up, and point out to negative things in the government. Vučić does nothing different to what every woman does in the morning, and what we, men, do more or less – namely, he “grooms” himself, hiding his flaws and emphasizing his virtues. Tony Blair did that first, i.e. conducting a permanent campaign which started on the first day of his re-election. Opponents are so tired because they have no money to continue. And therein lies the difference – some run the business day-to-day and some think strategically. If journalists define your agenda, then you are definitely lagging behind them. I wanted to do the same in the Croatian Government with Plenković; I wanted to set strategic long-term goals. Truth be told, the things that Vučić is doing now, the previous government did too, only that they did not have such a large majority that they could push through everything on their own – they had a coalition. The opposition has become a democratic decoration today. Of course, it is much harder to work from the opposition but let’s not forget that they get money from the budget to be the opposition. What are they doing with that money? Are they are preparing the system for the next elections or they claim they can’t do anything so they will boycott the elections? Their overall assessment would be much worse than Vučić’s and I think that voters share that sentiment.

Do you think that the opposition is seriously engaged in political marketing?

— Everyone underestimates it because the awareness of its importance is not sufficiently developed. I think that people are only now becoming aware. If you ask me, Vučić would get a straight “A” from me. Generally speaking, political parties do not know enough about this; politicians are chosen via negative selection in all parties and those who possess the knowledge disappear quite quickly. If you manage to keep the key people in the party, you have the basis for growth. In 2016, Vučić was chasing one goal – 50% of the vote. He has accomplished all his goals so far. We need to acknowledge the importance of communication in all segments. The problem lies in party-sponsored employment and negative selection.Speaking long-term, that would be the most detrimental to the SNS, so at some point, it will start to fall apart because it will not have the quality staff. The parties have to be a bit autocratic, that’s why there are these so-called party whips that discipline MPs. You cannot rule unless you have governing technology. In the world, the political communication market is much better developed. There is neither knowledge nor critical mass here.

Do politicians respect knowledge and do they seek advice?

— The best answer to that would be to say that no-one is invincible. Alexander Kwaśniewski, a young atheist who was the sports minister in Jaruzelski’s government, won the Polish presidential election against Lech Walesa. This could be likened to the Milošević-Tudjam dynamic, speaking in historical terms. It’s a historical example of how anything is possible if you know what you’re doing. Politicians often want a magic wand, but it does not exist. I often have to tell candidates that they were going to lose. We have to tell the client the truth, even if sometimes they don’t want to hear it. We have arguments for everything. I have to explain here that we, as a profession, cannot predict elections; we only measure trends, according to which we change our approach to the campaign. Surveys are like a perfume, you can smell but cannot try, said Jacques Séguéla, who led Kwaśniewski to victory. We don’t know the result either, because surveys are conducted to enable us to change the result. If Trump had not been losing at certain point, according to the statistics and previous results, he would not have pressed the gas pedal and win in the end. If you remember, until the last moment, everyone claimed that Hillary was winning. On the election day you don’t know who’s will participate and how they’re going to vote. It’s the only day when politicians are really scared of voters.

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