Revolutionary Measures

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.

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June 22, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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 | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Would we Like a social media election?

We’re now well into the General Election campaign and commentators are examining which media politicians are going to use with engage with voters. I’ve already talked about the debacle around the televised debates, which David Cameron is doing his best to scupper, but what of social media?

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

Rt Hon David Cameron, MP, Conservative Party leader, during his visit to Oxfam headquarters in Oxford. Full version. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Predictions that the last election would revolve around social media were wide of the mark, proving less like Obama’s #Yeswecan campaign and more akin to a series of embarrassing mistakes perpetrated by politicians and their aides who’d obviously never used Twitter before. This has continued with further gaffes, such as ex-shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry’s patronising tweet during the Rochester and Strood by-election that cost the Labour frontbencher her job.

However, there are already signs that social media will pay a bigger role in this election. For a start, social media is a good way of reaching the core 18-24 demographic that is currently disengaged from politics. 56% of this age group didn’t vote at the last election, so winning their support could be crucial in a contest that is currently too close to call.

We are also in an election where the core support of the traditional big two parties is being swayed by the rise of UKIP, the SNP and the Greens. So, rather than just appealing to floating voters in a certain number of swing seats, the Conservatives and Labour both need to demonstrate to their supporters that they understand their concerns and have policies to win them over. This means that they are likely to be more aggressive than in the past, judging that alienating the middle ground is a price worth paying for retaining traditional voters.

How this plays out generally will be fascinating, but what can social media provide? Early indications suggest there are six areas where it will be most used:

1. Attacking the opposition
Unlike offline or TV advertising, social media is largely unregulated. Which means you can get away with more online – for example, the Tory party is financing 30 second pre-roll “attack” ads on YouTube the content of which would be banned on TV. Given the desire to reassure core voters, expect tactics like this to be used even more as the campaign unfolds.

2. Managing the real-time news cycle
CNN brought about the 24 hour a day news cycle. Twitter has changed that to give minute-by-minute, real-time news. Stories can gain traction incredibly quickly, and fade with the same speed. Parties will therefore look to try and control (or at the very least manage) social media during the campaign, monitoring for trends that they can piggyback and starting stories of their own. And given that the media will also be monitoring what politicians are saying, expect a rash of stories with a shelf life of minutes and hours, rather than days and weeks.

3. Reaching voters
One of the most powerful parts of social media is the demographic profiling it provides advertisers with. This means that spending on advertising can be extremely targeted towards potential supporters, with little wastage. Figures obtained by the BBC show that the Tories are on course to spend over a million pounds on Facebook during the course of the election, based on current activities. Of course, reaching voters is one thing, the next step is to actively engage with them, starting conversations, listening and responding to their concerns. That takes time and skill, so expect a lot of effort to be thrown at content and conversations.

4. Monitoring voting patterns
There’s a lot of excitement about Big Data, and in particular how you can draw insights from the conversations happening on social media. Party strategists will be able to monitor what is trending on networks, and then use this feedback to evolve or change their strategies to focus on areas that are resonating with particular groups. However this sort of monitoring is still in its infancy, so results will need to be cross-checked before parties decide to do a U-turn on key policies.

5. Amplifying success
Third party endorsement is always welcome, so politicians will look to share and publicise content, such as news stories, that position them in a good light, and also encourage their supporters to do the same. This has already happened with celebrity interviews with the likes of Ant and Dec and Myleene Klass. However, as journalist Sean Hargrave points out, the Tories have a problem here – much of the right leaning media (The Sun, The Times and Daily Telegraph) are behind full or partial paywalls, making sharing difficult. In contrast the likes of The Guardian, Mirror and Independent are completely free and design content to be as shareable as possible. That just leaves the Tories with the Daily Mail……..

6. Making it bitesize
Like any modern digital campaign, the election will run on content. And to appeal to time-poor voters it will need to be carved up into bitesize chunks, such as blogs, Vines, Tweets and Facebook posts. Politicians are meant to be masters of the soundbite, so this should be just a question of transferring their offline skills to the digital world.

Social media will definitely be more of a battleground at this election, if only because more people are on Twitter, Facebook and other networks compared to 2010. Parties and politicians will look to adopt the tactics above, but with varying degrees of success. Some, such as those that have been engaging with voters for years, will do it well, but expect more gaffes from those that don’t understand the difference between a public tweet and a private direct message and decide to show the world pictures of their underwear…………or worse.

February 18, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

UKIP – the biggest threat to the Cambridge tech industry

I’ve always tried to keep my blog apolitical, criticising politicians from all parties equally. But, given the seriousness of the rise of UKIP, I’m suspending my impartiality for a week. Why? Put simply, I believe that Nigel Farage’s party is the biggest threat to face the UK (and in particular Cambridge) tech sector for many years.

The UKIP caravan parked up in Wroxall, Isle of...

First off, I don’t seriously believe that UKIP will garner enough MPs in the 2015 election to be part of a coalition. But what it has done is to shift the debate sharply to the right in two key areas (immigration and the EU), causing the Tories to talk about curbs on the free movement of workers and set a date for an in/out EU referendum. And given that the Tories are likely to be a central part of a future coalition that is potentially very damaging.

Aside from the general business problems that limiting immigration and leaving the EU would bring, it would hit Cambridge and the startup tech scene in four distinct ways:

1. Education
Many of the highly skilled individuals currently working at or building tech companies originally came from overseas to study in Cambridge. It is already more difficult to get a student visa, and making it harder will simply put off the brightest and the best, who will head elsewhere. And every clever student who goes elsewhere diminishes the wider Cambridge academic population and impacts its reputation and attractiveness to new students.

2. Skills
Pretty much every Cambridge startup I’ve worked with has an incredibly diverse workforce, with employees from every corner of the world. They’ve chosen to come here, or have remained after study, and helped build amazing success stories with their skills. These are incredibly sought after and mobile people – limiting entry for them to the UK will mean they simply go elsewhere.

3. Entrepreneurs
Charles Wang, the founder of US software company Computer Associates once had a policy of only employing first or second generation immigrants in management roles. Wang himself was born in Shanghai and moved to New York when he was 8 years old. His reasoning was that immigrants had drive, entrepreneurialism and a desire to make something of themselves. Given they often arrived with nothing, they had no safety net, unlike established citizens who had never faced the dangers of real failure. Wang’s view is limited – I know plenty of driven, successful entrepreneurs from stable British families, but he has a point. Limiting immigration removes these potential entrepreneurs and the benefits they bring to their adopted country when it comes to jobs, taxes and the wider economy.

4. Ideas
A tech cluster like Cambridge isn’t about individuals, no matter how skilled they are. It is about how they interact together and share and develop ideas, based on their own knowledge and experience. Diversity is key – if you bring together a group of people with similar backgrounds and experience you’re unlikely to get the range of ideas that comes from a wider group. Ideas play off each other and grow – take away diversity and you severely weaken the idea gene pool.

In answering my points, critics may well make one of two arguments. Firstly, that we’ll still let in the best, most skilled people – it is the jobless benefit seekers that we want to turn away. That may be true but will they want to come to a country that appears so unfriendly to outsiders? And, how do you spot the entrepreneur or Nobel Prize winning physicist to be? They could be the yet-to-be-born child of immigrants that initially came over here to work in agriculture or to escape persecution in their home country.

Secondly, people will point to the US, which has restrictive immigration policies, yet the biggest tech/entrepreneur sector in the world. The difference is that the US is a country built on immigration, with a culture that rewards risk-taking and encourages people to try again after failure. We still don’t have that attitude in the UK, and we need free radicals to act as a catalyst to help change things.

The last 20 years have seen a huge expansion in the Cambridge tech scene, driven by the combination of ideas, skills and experience of people from many different backgrounds. Cutting off or limiting the flow of entrepreneurs, workers, students and researchers from outside the UK would completely change this energy and dynamism. It would still survive, but would be weaker, more insular and less exciting. That’s why it is important to tell politicians of all parties that we want to encourage responsible immigration and EU membership to build a successful Cambridge tech sector that benefits us all.

October 29, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a 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