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.
I’ve always believed that people who take part in daytime phone-ins either have too much time on their hands, don’t have jobs or don’t get out of the house enough. Which of these apply to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg I’ll leave to the audience to decide, but his strategy to take part in a weekly phone-in on London radio station LBC looks like a mark of desperation.
Currently with the lowest poll ratings of the leaders of all three major parties (which is saying something), Clegg’s strategy is to appeal directly to voters by appearing on LBC. After all, his spin doctors must have mused, it was his appearance on the first televised party leaders debate before the last election that pushed the Liberal Democrats up the polls and ultimately helped them into power. So, let’s simply repeat the exercise and people will forget the last couple of years of government, and any policy changes, and just connect to Clegg the man.
Unfortunately, I think they’ve got the right idea but the wrong media for turning round Clegg’s image before the next election. Here’s three reasons that come to mind:
Lack of control
Obviously the whole point of a phone-in is that you have no idea what you are going to be asked. The plus point is that you can get the chance to talk about a wider range of subjects, but normally people on phone-ins aren’t giving up their time to call in and praise you. Hence Clegg suffering a verbal kicking in his first week on the radio. This may improve as he builds a rapport with the audience, but the randomness of live radio was shown by the headline news picked up by the press – Nick Clegg has a onesie, but hasn’t worn it yet.
LBC doesn’t reach a national audience
Having a senior politician on every week is a no-brainer for LBC – it boosts ratings, increases profile and, by broadcasting via the web, means it can reach a wider audience. However, whichever way you look at it, Clegg is not reaching the right voters – hundreds of miles from his constituency and not on a national platform. He’d do better (and show a keener grasp of new technology) by hosting a web chat or using social media to increase his credibility.
Other politicians make you look good
One of the basic reasons that Clegg impressed in the televised debates was that he was a relatively fresh face against the well-known Cameron and Brown. He hadn’t got the baggage they had and so looked good by association. The combination of years of government and being the only politician on show is always going to weaken credibility.
However it is a brave move from the Liberal Democrats who realise that from a communications point of view they need to do something to differentiate themselves and rebuild their fortunes. What next – sending him into the Big Brother house or chairing Have I Got News for You?
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…………..
- Im not a punchbag I have feelings (newstatesman.com)
- Government to ‘pause, listen, reflect and improve’ NHS reform plans (guardian.co.uk)
- Nick Clegg’s social mobility plans should not be lost amid mockery | Julian Glover (guardian.co.uk)