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…………..

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

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

5 lessons marketers can learn from the UK general election

Essentially a general election campaign is an exercise in marketing. Parties are trying to reach distinct audiences with their key messages and convince them to put a cross in the box next to their candidate’s name. To confuse matters slightly you have both national and local campaigns, potentially with different issues that have to be addressed. For example in some constituencies it is simply a matter of defending a majority by making sure people go out to vote, while in the marginals where the election will be won or lost it is about securing every vote possible.

Rt Hon David Cameron, MP, Conservative Party l...

It is also a pressure cooker environment. General election marketing is carried out in an intense campaigning period, with the eyes of the media permanently trained on everything that the parties do. So, for normal marketers what lessons can we learn – both positive and negative? I’d pick out five key ones:

1. Show passion
One of the criticisms levelled against David Cameron is that he doesn’t seem to care about the election and potentially winning a second term in office. Whether this is true or not, his perceived insouciance stands in stark contrast to the firebrand rhetoric of the challenger parties such as UKIP and the SNP. If you want to connect with your audience, show that you really are engaged with them and demonstrate you understand their concerns.

2. Don’t take your audience for granted
The days of a two party system appear to be consigned to history, with some of the safest Tory and Labour seats under attack from challenger parties. This is part of a wider dissatisfaction with professional politicians, which the electorate feel is out of touch with their lives and concerns. The lesson for marketers is that challengers can pop up in any industry, no matter how high the barriers to entry, if you fail to deliver what your audience wants.

3. Check, check and check again
I’ve had an election leaflet that says “insert local message here” at the bottom, while Tory MP Matthew Hancock has been embarrassed by an unfortunate fold of a campaign flyer that removes the first three letters from his name. The message is clear – no matter how pressured you are, it is vital to check everything that goes out if you are to avoid slip-ups.

4. Innovate
There hasn’t been a lot of innovation in how the main parties have campaigned during this election. Speeches, battle buses, visits, kissing babies and celebrity endorsements have been the norm. Ed Miliband visited Russell Brand, but given that Brand had earlier told his followers not to bother voting it remains to be seen what the impact of his chat actually will be. The TV debates that helped Nick Clegg to power last time did happen, but in a variety of formats that meant they lost their overall potency – exactly as David Cameron had hoped. Perhaps what is really needed is innovation within the whole process. You can register online to vote, but you can’t yet vote online or via text. Surely it is time to change this to encourage greater participation?

5. Embrace all channels
One of the key differences between most marketing and a general election is that each party is aiming to appeal to a wide age range. So you have to have specific messages for older audiences and the millennials who could be voting for the first time. That’s one of the reasons that this was predicted to be an election that embraced social media, particularly to reach younger voters, who traditionally have been less likely to vote. I’m not convinced that any party really nailed social media – or even if that is possible – but think that most of them could have done more to build engagement on the channel. Still, Twitter saw some interesting memes, with #milifandom making Ed Miliband an unlikely sex symbol.

As I write this on the morning of polling day the expected result is a hung parliament, with no party having a sufficient majority to govern alone. So on that score the major parties’ marketing will have failed. However if you look at the campaign as a whole, there are plenty of lessons to learn about what to do – and probably most importantly, what not to.

May 7, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The offline election

With less than a year to go until the 2015 General Election, manoeuvrings and PR campaigns are already in full swing. Since before the party conferences David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have been trying to set out their agendas for the future – all with one eye on the rise of UKIP. In the case of the Tories this means pandering to the anti-EU lobby, for the Liberal Democrats claiming that things would be much worse if they hadn’t been a restraining hand on Conservative policy, and for Labour it means their leader forgetting a crucial part of his party conference speech.
Polling station by Paul Albertella/Flickr https://flic.kr/p/7Z2aa6

Polling station by Paul Albertella/Flickr https://flic.kr/p/7Z2aa6

One of the innovations of the last election was the first ever televised leadership debates in the UK. Indeed, many credit Nick Clegg’s TV performance with the Liberal Democrat’s dramatically raised share of the vote and subsequent kingmaker role in the coalition government.

So, you’d think that leaders would be keen to repeat (or even extend) this experiment given that it was proven to engage with voters and give a chance to discuss the issues head to head. Err, no. Broadcasters have proposed an extended series of three debates, with one featuring Cameron and Miliband, the second Cameron, Miliband and Clegg and a third adding UKIP leader Nigel Farage to the mix. The reaction has been muted from the main parties, while the Green Party (who currently have the same number of MPs as UKIP) taking legal advice regarding their exclusion.

Leaving aside my personal antipathy to Farage and the xenophobic, unthinking attitude he represents, there are multiple reasons for including him in a set piece debate. We have freedom of speech in the UK, he is the leader of a national party with one MP, and I’d hope that the political strategists of the three major parties can come up with a range of counter arguments (that don’t pander to the same baseless xenophobia) if they want to impress the public at large. I do agree the Greens should be involved in some way, but that is just a detail to overcome, rather than a reason to call off the whole exercise.

What is more worrying is the complete lack of interest in a rival proposal (from The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and YouTube) to host debates that would be streamed live on YouTube. The Digital Debate campaign points out that a similar set of four debates at the last US election garnered 27 million views. More importantly it allowed politicians to engage with younger voters, half of whom primarily get their news online. While the exact form of the event is not yet set (and no party has formally agreed to it), streamed debates lend themselves well to sparking discussions on social media, are easy to share and create an online event that will engage voters.

Given that there is widespread dissatisfaction at the limited real world experience of politicians, surely anything that potentially engages them with the electorate can only be a good thing? A quick search on the internet finds that even the candidates for Sherriff of Jackson County in Mississippi were happy to debate online – why then has there been an overwhelming silence on the proposals from the UK’s politicians?

As a PR person I know that there are times when you have to turn down a good idea just in case it leads to unintended future consequences. But at a time when the electorate are so fed up with anodyne career politicians that many will either not vote or will support UKIP, it is time to be brave. Political spin doctors, and their masters, should embrace the online opportunity as a chance to rebuild the political process, rather than shying away from it. Be bold, be modern and make 2015 an online election.

October 22, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments