Revolutionary Measures

PR and the election – living in interesting times

Given I’m writing this post a couple of days before the UK General Election, there are clearly risks that I’ll both annoy everyone who is already fed up with the campaign, and end up with egg on my face through predictions that turn out to be completely wrong.

person dropping paper on box

Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

So, I’ll sit on the fence when it comes to the result, and instead look at the public relations around the election itself. In my view there are four interesting topics and trends:

1. Everyone wants to talk about ‘their’ issue

Just as Teresa May (remember her?) spent the last election chanting that the Tories would bring ‘strong and stable’ government, this time around the two main parties are focusing on one key issue above all. For the Tories it is ‘getting Brexit done’ whereas for Labour it is all about austerity in general, and the NHS in particular. Every opportunity is brought back to these key topics, whatever the start point of the question.

2. No-one wants to talk about their leaders

Without being party political it is clear that both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are divisive figures. Their handlers have therefore tried to be careful about when and where they appear in public and in front of the media. Even the leaders themselves have admitted they may be an issue, with Jeremy Corbyn (and multiple Labour candidates) pointing out that this is not a presidential campaign, and voters are choosing their local MP, not the Prime Minister. This may be true technically, but it is also a trifle disingenuous. Nevertheless, in all the election leaflets I’ve had I don’t think any (except the solitary missive from the Liberal Democrats) had a picture or endorsement from the party leader.

3. No-one knows what’s happening

We’ve had predictions from a whopping Tory majority to a hung parliament and the truth is, thanks to the first past the post system and the focus on every step (and misstep) of the parties, it would be a brave person who said the election was over before the votes were counted. Add in tactical voting and you can see why all parties are still pushing hard, with leaders criss-crossing the country and new policies appearing seemingly out of thin air. In my (extremely safe) Tory constituency I’ve not seen a single candidate on the doorstep, but have had lots of leaflets telling me what a good job my MP is doing. And this is despite the fact that it would take an electoral upset of gargantuan proportions to stop the area remaining blue.

4. Online is a key battleground

The traditional left/right division between Labour and the Conservatives has been turned on its head by Brexit. Hence Boris Johnson spending time wooing the leave-voting constituents of Northern seats. This also means that whereas in the past people might have been within a social media bubble of those with the same opinions, this time it isn’t necessarily the case. Hence the push to use online channels by all parties to reach and convince voters – at least £2 million has been spent on social media advertising up until now. And this is likely to grow – traditionally donations to parties ramp up towards the end of campaigns. Given that physical media such as billboards and newspaper adverts are either already booked up or cannot be created in time, the majority of this extra cash will be spent on targeted online ads.

5. Campaigns are not being legal, honest, decent and true

From the first leader’s debate, when Tory Central Office turned its Twitter handle into a supposed fact-checking resource, underhand tactics have been rife. Independent body the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising has highlighted that at least 31 campaigns from parties across the political spectrum have been indecent, dishonest or untruthful. This is probably a by-product of the generally chaotic nature of the campaign, and the rise of online, which makes it easier to quickly launch ads or claims without necessarily worrying about the consequences.

What can we learn from these points? Sadly, that whatever the result, such tactics are probably here to stay. So given the overall political landscape, I expect I’ll be writing a new version of this blog well within the supposed five year life of the next parliament….

December 11, 2019 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why aren’t more MPs Twits?

Public trust in politicians has never been amazingly high, but it seems to me that it is at an all time low. The impact of the expenses scandal, the Leveson enquiryand a general disbelief that they can do anything to get us out of the current economic mess have led to a real disconnect between politicians and their electorate. You can see this in falling turnout at the polls and a growing cynicism that our elected officials have our needs and concerns at the heart of what they do.

Free twitter badge

Free twitter badge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The wider that this disconnect grows, the greater the danger that people will simply switch off from politics and democracy will be endangered. What is needed is a new way of building bridges between politicians and the communities they serve, and technology offers some great new channels (and new pitfalls).

As a student I remember you could just turn up at the House of Commons and ask to see your MP – if they were free they were pretty much honour bound to come down and talk to you. Of course it didn’t work if they were busy (as Prime Minister my local MP was running the country) and nowadays the security checks would take an age, but at least it advertised they were accessible in some way.

Looking at technology, you’d think email would be the perfect way of communicating with constituents. However in an era of Freedom of Information Act requests many politicians are now too scared to commit themselves to responding to emails in anything but an anodyne, inconclusive way – the fear is that their words will be dragged up to haunt them in the future. While I don’t buy this – words are deeds after all and you should have the courage of your convictions, it means we need another way of keeping track of our elected politicians.

The perfect channel to me seems to be Twitter. MPs can provide short updates on what they are doing, be accessible to constituents and actually demonstrate what they are doing all day. They will also come across as more human, though we can probably live without knowing what they had for breakfast. Obviously Twitter sits alongside other channels such as constituency surgeries, answering correspondence and face to face visits, but it provides a real-time view into the politician’s daily life.

That’s the plan, but not really the reality. Talking to Cambridge MP (and prolific tweeter) Julian Huppert, at last Friday’s Creating Cambridge BBQ, I was struck by the gulf between those that have embraced the channel and those that shy away from it. It isn’t about age or party – my local MP in Suffolk uses Twitter mostly to RT point scoring stories knocking the opposition, with nothing about what he does all day. And he’s a similar age (if not younger) than Julian Huppert.

So here’s my manifesto for making MPs (and indeed all politicians) more accessible – get them onto Twitter and make it compulsory to tweet all the meetings they attend, their voting records and the constituency visits they make. That way there’ll be a complete public record of what they’re up to, allowing their constituents to question them, increasing engagement and hopefully re-connecting politicians and the electorate.

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July 18, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Coalition of Communicators?

David Cameron and Nick Clegg

Image by The Prime Minister's Office via Flickr

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen the coalition government pause on NHS reforms, make policy changes on vital issues and launch poorly thought out stunts like Start up Britain. I thought we were meant to have a coalition government made up of professional communicators? It amazes me David Cameron and Nick Clegg, trained public relations people, haven’t seen the PR downside of some of their initiatives – or been able to communicate better on key issues like NHS reforms.  Remember Nick Clegg, PR Week’s 2010 Communicator of the Year? It seems like a long time ago now.

Amusing though it would be I don’t want to take cheap shots at Cameron and Clegg – blogs are meant to be short and focused after all. But why has it gone so wrong on the communication front? Three things stand out for me:

 

1) Confusion between the message and the messenger
In the PR business the aim is for the messenger to be just a conduit to get the story to key audiences. Yes, you should have a presence but if people are focused on your personality and what tie you are wearing rather than what you are saying things get very confused. As PR people Cameron and Clegg should know this, but the pressure of trying to be message and messenger has simply overwhelmed them. The long drawn out departure of comms chief Andy Coulson hasn’t helped, removing expertise and an alternative spokesperson from the scene.

 

2) Short term thinking
Again, communicators preach the need for a long term strategy and that results don’t come quickly. But politics is different, hence knee jerk initiatives like Start Up Britain designed to create an immediate buzz. There seems to be no risk assessment of the potential pitfalls, just a rush to get things out the door and onto the next project.

 

3) No real mandate
The coalition government was obviously formed as no one party had a clear majority. And this lack of a real mandate means that the public, and in particular the press, is suspicious and analyses every policy announcement in minute detail. So flaws that may have been previously glossed over are now front page news – whether in the papers or on social media.

 

So what does the coalition need to do to turn around its communications? It isn’t a job I’d want, but to borrow a political slogan it needs to get back to basics. Ditch the gimmicks, take a longer term view and spend time explaining what they stand for and how it relates to the man in the street. That would really earn Clegg his PR Week Communicator of the Year Award…………..

 

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April 7, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment