Revolutionary Measures

Why this won’t be the social media election

The last year saw massive political change, with an outsider elected to the White House and the Brexit vote in the UK. Social media played a huge part in both of these decisions, with Donald Trump building and communicating with his voter base using Twitter, and Facebook (and other channels) being used to spread real and fake election/referendum news.
256px-Jeremy_Corbyn

Given the impact of social media on politics, will June’s vote be the first election that relies on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to reach and convince the electorate? After all, preparation time is short before polling day, impacting on the creation and dissemination of physical materials, such as posters and leaflets, while Prime Minister Theresa May has said she won’t appear in a televised leadership debate, cutting off a popular way of connecting with voters.

However, despite the popularity of social media there are two reasons it won’t change people’s minds:

1. It is an echo chamber
Generally people follow their family and friends on social media, which leads to a self-selection of the tweets and messages that they see. As was shown by the Brexit vote, Remainers tended to see their timelines full of pro-Remain tweets, leading to a false sense of security about the overall outcome. What people like Trump have done is create a following/brand before going into politics – something that ‘normal’ politicians don’t have the luxury to do.

2. Likes don’t mean votes
Jeremy Corbyn has 841,000 followers on Twitter (double that of his party) while Theresa May has just 209,000, with the Labour leader much more active on social media. But that doesn’t translate into votes. Latest opinion polls put the Conservatives at least 20 points ahead of Labour, and while pollsters have been wrong before, the figures seem to reflect general sentiment. Additionally, social media followers may be ineligible to vote or concentrated in specific constituencies, which mean that their ability to make a difference is diminished.

Instead of focusing on how it can win elections, party PRs should instead by looking at three ways social media can help them amplify their message and meet the needs of a short, fast-paced campaign:

1. Spread the word to the committed
Following the Brexit referendum and the last general election, we’re now facing our third nationwide poll in three years. There is a danger that even the most committed voters will switch off. Social media can reach this audience and focus on the importance of them turning out on the day, or even lending their time to get more actively involved in the campaign.

2. Get news into the mainstream
Pretty much every political journalist and commentator is on social media, meaning that as a channel to reach them Twitter, in particular, is unrivalled. By using it to raise issues and highlight stories PRs will be hoping social media can move them into mainstream TV, radio and newspapers where they can affect wavering voters.

3. Use the tools
Social media provides a set of normally free, easy to use tools that are extremely powerful to any political movement looking to organise itself. While an election campaign is certainly not the Arab Spring, there are real lessons that political parties can learn here. Communicate instantly with thousands of activists through Twitter, share video and audio and use sites such as Dropbox to upload and distribute materials. These tools tend to be faster and more seamless than old style email, telephone and post – but parties must bear in mind that they are much more of a democratic channel. Anyone can share anything at any time, rather than following top-down orders. Consequently expect at least one candidate to become embroiled in a scandal about misusing social media during the election and to claim that their account was ‘hacked.’

While social media won’t win or lose the election it does change how campaigning is carried out, and provides the ability for parties and candidates to operate faster – vital in the six or so weeks until polling day. Just don’t expect it to elect the next Donald Trump…………..

April 26, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Has Donald Trump saved Twitter?

The past couple of years have not gone well for Twitter. User numbers have stalled, attempts to monetise the platform have come to naught and no potential suitors for the company have emerged, despite plenty of rumours.

Donald Trump

Yet, Twitter is probably now the most important (social) media company in the world. It was central to Donald Trump building his fanbase and allowed him to communicate directly with voters during the election, ignoring the media and their pesky fact checking. Essentially it delivered what the internet first promised – a way of interacting with the public without going through middle men, and was, in a large part, directly responsible for Trump’s election as President.

It is a scary thought that while previous politicians looking to grab and hold onto power (think Silvio Berlusconi, Lenin and the Chinese Communist Party) have made it a priority to buy or nationalise communication channels such as newspapers and TV/radio stations, Trump has done it without spending a penny on Twitter. No wonder that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey says his feelings about the President-elect’s use of the service are “complicated.”

And Trump’s use of Twitter has, if anything, intensified since the election. He’s used it to challenge the intelligence services’ claims that the Russians hacked Democratic Party emails, and to take potshots at businesses that he claims are moving jobs and production outside the US. The result? Companies such as Ford and Carrier have backed down on overseas investments and the share prices of Lockheed-Martin, Toyota and GM amongst others fell after Trump tweets criticising them. PR and analyst relations professionals for blue chip companies must be spending their time glued to Trump’s Twitter feed, hoping and praying that he doesn’t single them out for punishment, like hapless flunkeys at the court of a particularly unpleasant medieval monarch.

If you needed proof of the power of Twitter, Trump provides it. And ironically, given the left-leaning sensibilities of Silicon Valley, he could well have saved the social network, or at least bought it some breathing space. The number of tweets sent in the US between August and November 2016 was over 1 billion (not all from Trump), with 75 million on election day and its aftermath. While it hasn’t helped the long-term share price, it undoubtedly aids efforts to find a buyer for the service. The question is whether this will be another tech company (Google is a logical fit) or whether another would-be politico will see the opportunity to build their profile à la Trump and invest. Whatever the outcome, expect more incendiary tweets in the future, with policy being set and communicated in 140 characters………….

January 11, 2017 Posted by | PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Lies, PR and the EU Referendum

As I write this, Thursday’s EU Referendum looks too close to call, although polls seem to indicate that the Remain camp is moving back on top. I don’t want to use this blog to discuss politics, particularly having seen the mindless abuse that the Leave camp has subjected Remain supporters to – see the comments on Rio Ferdinand’s thoughtful and well-argued Facebook post as an example.grunge-european-union-flag

Instead I want to look at the public relations and communications strategies around the campaign, and what it means for PR professionals, and more importantly for political dialogue in this country going forward. I have five conclusions:

1. Lies are going unchallenged
While both sides have come out with some pretty unbelievable statements during the campaign – voting to Remain will prevent World War 3, for example, the Leave campaign seems to be basing its central positions on the complete untruth that the UK sends £350m to Brussels every week. This ignores the rebate that is applied BEFORE any money changes hands, and also ignores all the other grants and support, such as to agriculture that the UK benefits from. Despite being proved to be a palpable lie by experts such as the independent UK Statistics Authority, it is still being peddled by the Leave campaign. It seems that interviewers have given up challenging Leave spokespeople on this, and newer misinformation such as the alleged imminent arrival of hordes of Turkish migrants following their country’s accession to the EU – an event that is highly unlikely to ever happen.

2. Experts are bad
Linked to this communication strategy is painting any expert that disagrees with Leave as not worth listening to. The IMF, Barack Obama, other European leaders, business leaders, David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, Nobel prize-winning economists – they are all part of a conspiracy against the general public. Indeed, Michael Gove himself said “The UK has had enough of experts” – presumably why he is at the head of the Leave campaign.

On a more serious note this distrust of knowledge is mirrored in Donald Trump’s appeal in the US – and shows that the traditional dislike of politicians has spread to anyone in authority or positions of influence. This is deeply disturbing as it removes one of the major planks of an advanced democracy – people spend years studying a subject, become an expert and then use their knowledge for the greater good. Why bother when a man with bad hair can solve the world’s problems by shouting and building a wall?

3. The devil has the best tunes
Incumbents always have a hard job. People may be innately conservative (with a small c), but they have a record that they can be judged on. By contrast the Leave campaign is freely promising the earth, spending the mythical £350m on a whole raft of schemes, from the NHS to farmers, despite having neither power nor accountability. As anyone that has repitched for a piece of business knows, it is easy for rivals to upstage you by gulling clients with ideas that you know are impossible to implement. This makes the Remain campaign’s job harder, particularly as their opponents’ rhetoric gets more and more fanciful.

4. Language and tone
In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell wrote “Never use a long word when a short one will do.” He saw keeping language simple as a way to communicate with the wider public, and get across complex theories in ways that were understandable to all. What he didn’t foresee was for the same tactics to be used to actively bamboozle the populace with glib statements that cannot be put into action. Again, this is very similar to the rhetoric employed by Trump in the US election. Looking at the campaign names Leave is much more active and punchy than Remain – it sounds more exciting, masking the real message in a dangerous way.

5. Ambivalence
When he promised a referendum David Cameron said that he’d only argue for Remain if he received concessions from the EU in certain areas. While he did negotiate improvements, this illustrates his half-hearted approach to the whole issue. He has dramatically underestimated his opponents, appeared ambivalent until campaigning began and struggled to match the passion of the Leavers, who have been working up to this point for over 10 years. Cameron seems to have failed to have learnt the lessons of the Scottish Referendum which showed how difficult it is for the status quo to be positioned as a positive choice. Ultimately, he may well pay for this lack of passion with his job – whichever way the vote goes.

The EU Referendum is a once in a generation event, therefore it is right that arguments are made with passion – the vote really does matter. However what campaigning shows is that there is a deep fissure developing between the electorate and those they elect, with trust breaking down and people turning away from the facts, and embracing hearsay and lies. The ironic thing is that the people the Leavers are led by (Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage), are as much a part of the establishment as their Remain opponents – they are simply happy to embrace the disaffected and turn their grievances against their political rivals. The rules of political communication have been not just ignored, but completely ripped up, meaning that whatever the result it will leave a fractious, divided and ultimately poorer political landscape across the UK.

June 22, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Where does free speech end?

The cover story in this week’s Economist warns against the growing dangers posed to free speech, by a combination of repressive governments, physical attacks on individuals, and the spread of the idea that people have a right not to be offended. The crux of the article is that the most worrying danger is actually the third one – by not listening to, and debating against, ideas that we find wrong we are actually limiting free speech. It is much better to dismantle an argument and point out its flaws by arguing against its proponents rather than banning the discussion of a subject or point of view, not matter how distasteful we find it. Of course, there are exceptions, as The Economist points out – incitement to violence, for example.

English: Free Speech. Luis Ricardo cartoon Esp...

Shortly after reading this I saw that BuzzFeed has pulled out of an advertising deal with the US Republican Party, now that Donald Trump has essentially won the party’s nomination. It has turned down an alleged $1.3m of income as it fundamentally disagrees with his position and policies. While this isn’t a curb on free speech as such – there are plenty of other places Trump can advertise, and I’m not sure how many of BuzzFeed’s demographic would vote for him anyway, it does illustrate another trend that I’ve noticed over the past few years.

In the UK we’ve gone from a media landscape dominated by four TV channels (and I remember Channel 4 launching), and a set number of newspapers to a multiverse of places to get hold of our news and information. In many ways this personalisation is great – we’re served up stories, or visit sites/TV channels based on our preferences, meaning we get immediate access to what we are interested in.

But on the other hand the shared experience has disappeared – the chances of watching the same TV programme or reading the same article are much fewer. Many people have given up linear TV altogether in favour of box sets or internet-based services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime, some of which auto suggest what you’d like to watch next, based on your previous viewing. At the same time local newspapers have been decimated by the internet, meaning that even many free sheets are no longer delivered, with the exception of titles such as Metro.

So, it is quite possible that people can inadvertently edit out news that is outside their range of sources. To me, this is as much a threat to civil society as curbs on free speech. After all, you can’t complain against something you don’t even know is happening.

So, what can be done about it? We obviously can’t/shouldn’t go back to the limited choice that we had before, particularly as much 1980s television was dire. What we should be looking at is ensuring that the places we are going for our news and information are open, level playing fields that reflect and provide us with a range of views.

This is relatively simple for publically accountable sites such as the BBC, but much more complex for those like Facebook and Twitter which rely on user generated content. Facebook recently had to explain itself to US senators after allegations of anti-right wing basis in its Trending Topics section. The worrying thing is that while many people assume articles are picked by algorithms (which is potentially scary enough), there is major input from human reviewers, leading to the possibility of conscious or unconscious bias creeping in.

What can social media do? An elegant solution would be to randomise the whole process, serving up stories that have absolutely nothing to do with your background or interests. However, given Facebook’s desire to keep you on its site for as long as possible, it is unlikely this would please its users, or shareholders. Instead, how about a certain percentage of random content provided every day, even if it is flagged as different in some way. All it takes is people to become intrigued and click on it, and new connections and interests could be kindled – opening up debate and helping to safeguard free speech. Any other ideas gladly received in the comments section below………

June 8, 2016 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The PR lessons from Donald Trump

In the past being nominated as the Republican or Democrat presidential candidate had a lot to do with money, specifically advertising spend. This was the weapon of choice for winning over primary voters in each state, hence the push by candidates to appeal to big donors who would then bankroll their campaigns. The sheer sums involved are astronomical – experts believe that $100 million was spent solely on TV advertising around the New Hampshire primary. No wonder that the total 2016 election is expected to cost $5 billion – more than the GDP of many small countries.

English: Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in...

Normally this counts against the maverick candidate – after all, if you don’t appeal to the big donors with the money you won’t get the advertising, and consequently the primary votes won’t follow. This year, as in many ways, the Republican race is turning out very differently. While the runaway leader Donald Trump has spent money on advertising, it is nowhere near as much as his rivals – for example each of his 239,000 votes in South Carolina cost the equivalent ad spend of $7.42, with a total cost $1.78m. By contrast each of Jeb Bush’s 57,000 votes involved spending of $238.15, with a total budget of $13.78m.

Whatever your opinion of him, Trump has done something that most marketers in general, and PR people in particular, should recognise. Rather than spending money solely on advertising, he’s adopted a balanced marketing strategy that is led by PR and social media, and merely supported by TV and other ads. He’s built a brand and sustained it by continually being controversial – with Twitter the primary channel for his rants. If commentators lauded Barack Obama’s use of social media to win his two terms as president, Trump is the flipside, using the networks to connect with those that feel disenfranchised and left behind by traditional politicians.

Of course, it is all (to put it politely) a load of baloney – and Trump knows it. Policies such as building a wall between the US and Mexico (and getting the Mexicans to pay for it) and banning Muslims from entering the country are both objectionable and unworkable. His ideas for increasing the tax paid by hedge fund managers have been proved by economists to actually reduce the tax take from that group. Yet every time opponents seem to be closing the gap, he opens his mouth, says something offensive/controversial and sees opinion polls soar. It is a classic PR-led marketing campaign.

I’m certainly not advocating any of my clients follow suit with similar sentiments, but there are lessons to be learnt from Trump’s success to date:

1. Play the long game
Trump has spent the past few years building his profile as a celebrity. His bombastic stint on The Apprentice provided the bedrock for his celebrity, and he has nurtured this on Twitter and through inflammatory comments long before the campaign began. In contrast, many of his opponents had little national profile before the Republican primaries began, so have been building a base from scratch.

2. Build a connection
Despite being a billionaire who inherited much of his wealth Trump is seen as being on the side of those that have been squeezed by trends such as globalisation. In the same way that Nigel Farage has cultivated his bloke in the pub persona (despite going to top public school Dulwich College and a career in the City), he has built a connection with his supporters. They feel he understands them and is rooting for them, with social media helping to give a personal, human relationship between him and his followers.

3. Everyone loves the underdog
Trump has positioned himself as the radically different challenger brand, rather than being more of the same. This means he is seen as an outsider – David versus Goliath, despite his wealth, connections and fame. He’s not viewed as a politician, with all the baggage that brings, or even as a serious candidate by many. Again, similar tactics helped Boris Johnson win the London mayoral election – a few stints on Have I Got News for You and he’d positioned himself as a bumbling, unthreatening clown, completely different to the political elite.

4. Be controversial
Again, I’d not advocate clients becoming bigoted, bullying misogynistic racists, but Trump uses language that the general public understands and relates to. He doesn’t just read off an autocue or give speeches that have been refined until there is no meaning left in them. People remember his soundbites and they stand out from the crowd – not just because they are offensive, but because of the type of language he uses. This is all part of his act, but demonstrates an understanding of what makes people respond at a very basic level.

I sincerely hope that Trump fails to get the Republican nomination, and, failing that, that the general public see sense and doesn’t vote him into the White House in the coming election. However everyone in marketing and communications should heed the lessons of his campaign, and look at how they can use PR and social media to get their message across to key audiences.

March 9, 2016 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Who do you trust?

We live in challenging, complex times. Globalisation, wars, mass migration, terrorism and the sheer pace of technology change all combine to unsettle and worry large percentages of the population, both in the UK and across the world.

In suspicious eras such as these, trust in institutions and organisations is vital if people are to be reassured and helped to understand how change is affecting them. So the headline finding of the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer – that levels of trust in UK government, media, business and NGOs have all risen – should be a reason for celebration. The Edelman study, now in its 16th year, surveyed 2,500 members of the public in the UK as part of a global sample of 33,000 people.

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

However, behind the headline figures there are two main causes of concern for those of us involved in communications.

1.          Below average national trust
While the UK’s trust levels are at their highest since the recession (excepting in the case of NGOs), the country’s combined, cross-index score of 40% means it ranks amongst the ‘distrusters’, along with most of Western Europe, the US and Australia. The Chinese say they have the most trust in institutions (71%), followed by citizens of the United Arab Emirates (65%), and India, Indonesia and Singapore (all 62%). The global average is 48%.

The UK’s relatively low ranking is probably not a surprise. After all, we pride ourselves on taking a cynical attitude to the institutions around us, and this adds a level of public and media scrutiny that supposedly keeps politicians and business on their toes. Negative headlines sell papers, reflecting the national psyche and appetite for bad news. However, it also means that PR people, and other marketers, need to work harder to convince the general public that, actually, things aren’t that bad for the vast majority, particularly compared to many other places around the globe.

2.          The trust gap
The biggest worry is the widening gap between the haves and have nots when it comes to belief in institutions. Edelman divided its sample into the ‘informed public’ (those with a household income in the top 25%, typically with university degrees), and the general public. Overall the gap between these groups in the index hit 17%, up from 9% last year, with the informed public trusting government, business, the media and NGOs much more than the rest of the population.

In many ways this isn’t unexpected – it is much easier to be happier with your lot if you have a cushion of money and education to fall back on. And the recession has seen widening inequality – figures released by Oxfam show that the richest 62 people in the world held the same wealth as the poorest half of the global population in 2015, equivalent to some 3.6bn people. Working a zero hours contract for a company that allegedly shifts its profits offshore to avoid tax is going to provide a radically different perspective to someone who is a manager in the same organisation.

But the big concern is the impact of this lack of trust. The rise of Donald Trump in the US, and the fact that Poles (the least trusting population at 34%) have just elected an ultra-conservative government that promptly replaced the heads of public broadcasters, shows the consequences of the rift between citizens and public institutions. In the UK this suspicion is evident on the forthcoming EU referendum – 61% of the informed public back Britain remaining, with 26% wanting to leave. In contrast nearly half (47%) of low earners favour leaving, and just 34% believe the UK should stay in.

The consequences of the trust gap are therefore potentially extremely worrying, with populists exploiting public fears to increase their share of the vote and shift the debate rightwards in many cases. It is up to communicators of every sort (whether working for government, business or NGOs) to address this gap, and look to educate the general population, both that current change is bringing positive benefits, and that issues can’t be solved through kneejerk reactions, such as building a wall between the US and Mexico. It won’t be easy as in many cases the devil has the best tunes, but it is vital if informed democracy and real debate are to flourish.

January 20, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Has Twitter spawned Jeremy Corbyn?

Amidst all the column inches written about the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, there are a couple of factors that people seem to be forgetting. True, he is probably now the most famous Jeremy in the country (according to an unscientific Google search I just carried out, links to stories about him outrank Clarkson and Kyle), but he is actually part of a wider protest movement across the Western world. Far left Greek party Syriza has just been re-elected, despite backtracking on its promises to free Greece from onerous bail-out terms. Spanish left wingers Podemos have also shown well in opinion polls while Catalan nationalists won a majority, albeit a slim one, in this week’s regional elections. Going back to the UK, look at the success of the Scottish Nationalists at the election and the continued high profile of Nigel Farage.

Jeremy Corbyn

Across the pond, non-politicians such as Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina have been leading polls amongst Republicans, while Bernie Sanders, who describes himself as “the only elected socialist in Congress”, is keeping Hillary Clinton honest in the Democratic contest.

So why are voters across Europe and the United States supporting mavericks on the right and left, even if in many cases there is little chance that they will be able to carry out their policies?

No dead pig bounce
The easy answer is that they are sick of career politicians who seem keener on hanging onto power than actually connecting with voters. Many people think politics itself is broken. Even David Cameron’s alleged assignation with a dead pig just makes us shrug and doesn’t really impact his ratings either way. At the same time many people still don’t see the good times coming back after the recession – real wages in the UK are still below those of before the crash for many people, hurting confidence. Globalisation and the rise of ever-more intelligent computers is eating into traditional middle class occupations, causing uncertainty for those with skills that can be potentially automated or offshored.

Obviously, any alternative to this combination of depression and drabness has a chance to stand out from the crowd. And challenger politicians can get away with half-baked policies or even, as in the case of Donald Trump, a promise that he’ll come up with some “really good ideas” when he is elected.

But I think there is a more fundamental force at work – the internet and social media has completely changed how we consume our news and form our opinions. We live in Andy Warhol’s era of everyone being famous for 15 minutes, from a man captured on camera abusing a motorcyclist to celebrities reciting music lyrics with a Shakespearean twist.

What the likes of Corbyn and Trump share, despite their radically different views, share is a combination of solidity, outsider status and an ability to come up with inspiring (or eyecatching) soundbites that suit social media. They don’t appear stage managed but at the same time are reassuring while not being part of the establishment.

Politics 2.0
In many ways they are the start-ups of the political world, promising radical change to shake up a traditional market, in the same way that the likes of Google, Amazon and Uber have changed the industries they operate in. Perhaps voters believe that politics can be re-invented, just like retail and telecoms.

What will be interesting to see is how traditional politicians respond – will they continue to operate as before, like many of the companies that digital start-ups displaced, or can they re-invent themselves successfully and build a brand that fits with the internet electorate? Or will we see a new generation of less radical, but more social media savvy, politicians come through to replace the likes of Corbyn and Trump? One thing is for certain, in politics as in every other sector, those that cope best with today’s social, mobile world will be those that engage with voters and ultimately win their loyalty and power.

September 30, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments