PR lessons from the UK general election campaign
They say never talk about politics in professional company, but it would be remiss of us as a marketing communications consultancy not to at least share our thoughts on the successes and failures of the UK election campaign.
We asked several members of our Freshfield team to talk us through what caught their eye during this election and what lessons businesses and other organisations can learn from the campaign.
Personality politics has become our latest American import
The irony for me about this campaign is that while our political system is looking more European than ever before (multiple parties, talk of coalitions and more power in the hands of smaller parties) the campaign has been very American in nature. The televised debates, concentration of media coverage on the party leaders, and personality-focused news broadcasts unveiling revelations like Ed Miliband’s second kitchen, have given the last six weeks the feel of a presidential race. Another trait to cross the Atlantic is the personal attack advert. From Nick Clegg as the ‘Un-Credible Shrinking Man’, to pictures of Ed Miliband in Alec Salmond’s pocket, to Labour’s ‘Imagine what David Cameron would do with five more years’ video, it seems like you have to look pretty hard to find any party not indulging in opposition-bashing. The impact of all this is that policy takes a back seat to personality. As I sit here now I’m struggling to recall a single differentiating policy from any of the leading parties – perhaps this is why there is unlikely to be any clear winner in the race for Number 10?
(Mark Brennan, senior marketing consultant)
Social media strategies weren’t risky enough
It was tipped as the ‘social media election’, but if we can learn anything from the main political parties’ social campaigns, it’s how they should have been better. Although social media is by no means exclusively used by young people, its most active demographic is 18-24 year olds – of which just 44 per cent voted in the last general election. However, one of the biggest problems is that, although all parties use social media to support their campaigns, they haven’t been used to break news, lead debates, or offer any real insight into the ‘person behind the politics’. Each party’s social channels follow a similar format: An update on what the leader has been up to, a reminder of past successes, and criticisms of the opposition. All of it distinctly unimaginative. This seems to stem from a lack of understanding of the audience. Although the main parties have used YouTube widely and successfully in addition to Facebook and Twitter, they are noticeably missing from some of the most popular platforms for 18-24 year olds, such as Snapchat and Instagram (only Labour has an Instagram account). Yet it’s telling that one of the most talked about election moments on social media was when young supporters launched the ‘#Milifandom’ and the ‘#Cameronettes’, taking a cue from popular Twitter ‘fandom’ culture. We can learn a valuable lesson about engaging new audiences: know them, know their habits, and understand that the brave new age of digital requires a different approach – and a certain degree of risk.
(Laura Cullen, senior PR executive)
Too much style, not enough substance
We all know that politicians use a variety of techniques to woo voters. There’s the usual array of stunts – kiss a baby, visit a pensioner, have a photocall in a factory, kick a football and cosy up to some celebs. Of course, we must not forget to throw some mud at the opposition, create some fear and blame everything on the previous administration. I desperately wanted to see something different this time, but I feel let down. The parties said they were going to dispense with their traditional election approach and embrace digital channels. However, the only piece of communication I had was a standard leaflet asking me to vote for someone who doesn’t actually live in the area. I’ve seen little from the main parties that captures my imagination and compels me to give them my precious vote. The one party that did surprise me was the Green Party. Its video of a ‘coalition boy band’ was quite entertaining, but quickly descended into the usual – don’t vote for them because of X, Y and Z. What would get more people to vote is politicians telling the truth. The trouble is that no-one trusts politicians anymore. There’s an important lesson here for the business community which is the need to have something real and different to say and to tell that story with credibility.
(Michael Gregory, director)
Video has become an essential component of storytelling
The traditional televised party political broadcast may have been consigned to the history books, but the main parties are producing their own video content for sites like YouTube and pushing this out on social media. Many of these videos are masterclasses in getting messages across in a short and snappy way that will appeal to voters. The Conservatives are playing it safe. What greets visitors to the official YouTube channel is a sea of blue with well-composed talking heads on key issues such as ‘A stronger economy’ with George Osborne. Labour’s is a little different, focusing on personality (‘Ed’s mystery guest’ and ‘Steve Coogan on the choice in this election’). The Lib Dems have focussed on the issues that matter to them, so ‘Putting nature at the heart of Government,’ and a focus on apprentices. Meanwhile, UKIP has broken the cardinal rule of not having a coherent video and content strategy and has only uploaded one video in the last month, so no incentive for viewers to keep coming back. The main parties clearly have understood that for many people, viewing the content you want, when you want is becoming the norm, and are using the opportunity to tell the stories that matter to them in the way they choose. A good lesson for us all.
(Ben Hewes, senior PR consultant)
Parties have played it too safe to influence hearts and minds
It’s well known in politics that neither your friends nor your enemies win you elections – undecided swing voters do. However, in this election I’ve noticed there seems to be a lot of concentration on retaining the support of existing voters, while smearing the efforts of the opposition. It’s probably the reason we’ll end up with another coalition. Could time not have been more wisely spent shifting attention onto floating voters, or even those who consider themselves traditional Labour or Tory supporters? I saw no evidence of parties trying to challenge historical or stereotypical views. I have an open mind where politics is concerned, but I’ve known for a while who I’ll be voting for this time without reading all the manifestos, or even really knowing a great deal about my local chosen candidate. Incidentally, I’m not that fussed if Nick Clegg stopped to have a go at making a curry at an Indian restaurant in Cardiff on a trip from Land’s End. Is it relevant that Ed Miliband has taken a selfie with Joey Essex, and does it matter if David Cameron watched an apprentice make a pork pie? Not to me. I think this is where a shift in the content of campaigns and the people they target could be more effective, by challenging pre-existing views and reaching out to the ‘neutrals and negatives’, rather than channelling all their energy into retaining the ‘positives’ – those who will support them anyway come rain or shine.
(Jen Peacock, PR executive)
Stage-managed photo opportunities have gone too far
Many of the pictures that emerge from the election campaign aim to make politicians come across as normal people, but I can’t remember seeing many images this time that were spontaneous or inspiring. On Easter Sunday when David Cameron ‘took a break from campaigning’ he shared on Twitter a photo of himself on an Oxfordshire farm bottle-feeding an orphaned lamb. The photo had clearly been taken professionally and was a blatant attempt to show he had a caring side. But was it believable and does it matter? In the social media age, where we no longer have to take the traditional press’ word for it, it’s much harder to convince the public that what they are seeing isn’t a contrived picture opportunity. For example, we had the photos of David Cameron giving a speech seemingly surrounded by hundreds of placard waving supporters in a factory. At first glance it looked impressive. But thanks to a picture posted on Twitter, it became apparent this was a stage-managed photoshoot with just a few tens of the party faithful cheering for Cameron in what looked like an empty aircraft hangar. It’s telling that the only photo from this campaign that provided any party leader with a real boost was the complete fluke of Ed Miliband turning up at a hotel to be surrounded by members of a hen party snapping selfies with him. It helped give rise to the #milifandom hashtag on Twitter and would appear to have helped his appeal with female voters no end.
(Emma Rawlinson, senior PR consultant)
Once trust is lost it’s hard to regain
This election has demonstrated just how little trust the public now has in the political system. The main parties have had to go to great lengths to convince voters that their election pledges are for real, which has made them look desperate. I mean it comes to something when you have to promise to introduce legislation to get people to believe you will not raise taxes (Conservatives), or to physically carve your election pledges in stone to show people how committed you are (Labour). It shows how much damage politicians and parties have done to their reputation that they now have to resort to these election PR stunts to try and claw back some respectability, risking their reputation even further. Such gimmicks usually come back to bite parties when it becomes apparent that, despite their best efforts, they simply cannot deliver something because of factors outside their control. For example, The Lib Dems have gained some great concessions from the Tories over the course of the last parliament, but it seems people are only focusing on the promises they couldn’t deliver on, such as university tuition fees. For me then, the most important PR lesson is don’t make promises you can’t keep.
(Andrew Taylor, senior PR consultant)
It’s all about the message
Despite manifestos full of differing policies, the parties have kept the debate about one or two core issues, mainly the economy and the NHS. Labour has stuck to its key message that people are worse off under the Tories while the Conservatives have pointed to their record on creating jobs, claiming Labour can’t be trusted on the economy. For me, probably the most memorable aspect of this argument has been David Cameron’s use of the now infamous note left by Liam Byrne, saying there’s no money left, to savage Labour’s economic credentials. Labour maintain this was just a joke, but it keeps coming back to bite them and must go down as one of the biggest PR own goals of all time. Meanwhile, The Lib Dems have driven home the message that they are the sensible “centre ground” party that can “bring a heart to a Conservative government and a brain to Labour one”. UKIP has focused on its core message of controlling immigration, while the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s personal message to Ed Miliband was clear and unequivocal – let’s work together and “lock the Tories out of Downing Street”. Perhaps it hasn’t made for the most exciting of election campaigns, but the steadfast dedication to key messages means we’re familiar with each party’s core argument.
(Paul Tustin, client director)
Being different makes a difference
I was looking forward to this election but I have to say it’s been dull. I’ve been more interested in looking at the sheer manpower behind each campaign. The Independent did a great piece on the key players behind each party. The polls are very tight and I think that’s because the campaigning has been uninspiring. Where were the great posters, the PR own goals, the fights, the egg throwing and the major turning points. The Tories have opted for the safe economic stability message and Labour seem intent on attacking the opposition rather than focussing on their own credentials. A general election should be about hope and change. Labour nailed this in 1997 with its New Labour / ‘Things can only get better’ theme. It won by a landslide. Being different won the voters over. We can all learn from this. In a competitive marketplace, you need to be different and unique if you want to influence your audiences and change opinion. I think this general election will be remembered as being a big let-down for voters. It certainly will for me.
(Simon Turner, managing director)