The order is made with as much discretion as urgency: the independence movement must be defeated, the Spanish vote must be mobilized. We are in mid-October 2017, barely two weeks have passed since 1-O and the images of the police batons against the referendum voters have finally managed to internationalize the conflict.
J.G., a senior executive from Madrid of a German multinational, exasperated by the management of the government of Mariano Rajoy and the communicative advantage that the independentistas have been building for years, decides to take a step forward. Not quite in front, because he asks the Barcelona communication agency to which he goes to set up a war room, the term used by digital marketing experts for campaigns that seek to influence through social networks. Two sources consulted by La Vanguardia identify J.G. as the person who pays, although he denied to this newspaper through a spokesman having financed "any campaign" and assures that said information "is not true."
The operation cost between 1.5 and 2 million euros. Later, some Barcelona businessmen try to join it. Five years have passed and only now have some participants in the work agreed to explain it, although they request anonymity.
The war room is set up in an office at Calle Trafalgar, 38, as revealed in the recent book La burguesía catalana (Península) by La Vanguardia journalist Manel Pérez.
“The businessman comes to us because he has good references. He knows that we are a powerful agency, expert in new marketing techniques. In the end, inciting a purchase or a change in the direction of the vote is not that different. It is a purely professional assignment,” says an agency manager.
The demonstration on October 8, 2017 in Barcelona, organized by the Catalan Civil Society (SCC) without the support of the political parties, was a shock that energized the constitutionalist movement to fight. After that march, the businessman knocked on the door of the Barcelona agency, to which two former senior SCC officials are linked. The secret digital campaign, however, takes place outside these acronyms, insists its president until November of that year, Mariano Gomà, who emphatically affirms to La Vanguardia that he was unaware of the operation and no one ever told him about it. Several former managers of the entity corroborate this version.
What initially is a medium-term project soon becomes urgent. On October 27, Rajoy dissolved Parliament under article 155 and called elections for December 21. The digital team has barely a month and a half to work a miracle: achieve a constitutionalist majority. The constitutionalist parties (PP, PSC and Ciudadanos) are aware of the operation.
The agency hires –with confidentiality clauses– around 55 people, including creatives, journalists, video editors and experts in digital strategy. Many are Catalan and Catalan-speaking, because most of the content that is broadcast is in this language. The priority objective, to which more resources are allocated, is to sow doubt among the pro-independence electorate.
They also hire the Messina Group, an American consultancy founded by Jim Messina, head of Barack Obama's re-election campaign (2012) and deputy chief of staff at the White House. The company, specialized in political strategy based on the micro-segmentation of the electorate, had already worked in Spain for the PP campaign in the 2016 general elections.
Four employees of the Americans settle in Barcelona. The company has confirmed its participation to this newspaper. “Messina Group worked for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the Popular Party in 2016. After the better-than-expected results, in the weeks before the 2017 Catalan regional elections we were hired to advise the three political parties pro- union (PP, Citizens and PSC). Messina Group assisted in sending messages, in the digital and general strategy”.
Of the three constitutionalist parties, only the Catalan popular parties have admitted to this newspaper that they hold "any initial meeting" with the Messina experts, although later the exchanges are limited to reports of social listening that they send them by mail. These reports, which analyze the emotions that their leaders or their proposals arouse on social networks, are accompanied by strategic campaign recommendations.
The PP, for example, is asked not to criticize the PSC for shifting its discourse to the left to extract voters from the common people. There is another indication, however, that the popular decide to ignore. Although the "social listening" carried out by this team shows that Mariano Rajoy arouses strong rejection in Catalonia, the president participates in the campaign.
“We knew that they also worked for PSC and C’s, nothing more. Neither did who paid, ”say popular sources. PSC sources say that "there was no coordination" between the three campaigns, "knowledge yes." Each game goes to its own. Especially Ciudadanos, to whom the polls smile.
“Messina tells us that you have to make 14 impacts on a person to change their mental framework. Frequency is important and not to exceed it”, explains a person involved in the campaign.
They spread between 30 and 40 pieces of content a day: memes and videos that go viral, but also articles or economic reports, for example about companies fleeing Catalonia.
The operation has three phases. In the first, they try to gain the trust of every eventual voter. “You create a profile or a group on Facebook and start posting content that you know they will like. In this first phase, likes and followers are sought, you only issue messages that prove them right, to win them over ”, details the expert. They came to have a community of 1.5 million followers. They did not use bots, he says, but preferred a slower but "organic" growth, attracting real people.
In the second phase, you begin to question the ideas of your interlocutor, in a subtle way, without directly denying his beliefs. The third, shorter, only starts when there are a few days left to go to the polls. “There you already tell him directly that what he thinks is wrong. You try to get the person to change their positions.”
The original assignment is to help the three parties, without favoring any in particular, although it does seek to maximize the constitutionalist vote.
There is a turning point in the campaign. On December 13, the socialist candidate, Miquel Iceta, said in an interview on RAC1 that he would "ask for a pardon" if the pro-independence prisoners are sentenced. The PSC falls in the polls. This forces the digital guerrilla to change its strategy, to bet everything on C's, the winning horse. “In some places, especially in the metropolitan area, we issued messages to demobilize the vote for the PSC and the PP, because otherwise it would harm the C's. It was about getting the maximum number of constitutionalist seats, ”recalls a director of the Barcelona agency.
The brains of the operation ended with a bittersweet taste. With pride for the –frantic– work done and with a feeling of failure. Ciudadanos was crowned as the first non-Catalan party to win a Catalan election in votes and seats, but the independentistas achieved a parliamentary majority.
“We ran out of time. As Messina told us –explains the advertising manager– here the rational message did not work, no matter how many impacts you made. Uninstalling an emotional frame of mind is very difficult”