When political PR campaigns clash with the real world

When political PR campaigns clash with the real world

steve harman

In the final post of our mini series on election PR and communication,  CIPR PR Diploma graduate student Steve Harman, now a freelance PR consultant specialising in strategic communications and campaigning, critiques the campaigns. ..... 


"The PR recruitment agency Elwood and Atfield has filled two of its rooms with a gallery that features the best and worst of modern General Election campaigns. Looking through the posters and leaflets, it’s hard not be struck by the extent to which negative campaigning has dominated over the years. There are only a couple of half-hearted attempts to sell a specific policy or set of values (a Conservative poster promising that hospitals would be cleaner with matrons in charge, and Labour’s Post-it note reminder to “vote for schools and hospitals this Thursday.”) Instead the walls are plastered with negative slogans and images: demonic eyes; various warnings about tax “double whammies” or “economic disasters”; men dressed as chickens pursuing candidates who were supposedly ducking a debate.


The current campaign hasn’t been much different, with the main parties again selling themselves on a narrow range of perceived strengths, and trumpeting the reasons not to vote for their opponents, rather than setting out detailed visions for the country. The Conservative offering to voters is simple. Since the Coalition came to power they have stuck – with impressive PR rigour – to a script that blames Labour for the financial crisis.  They now present the election as a choice between their safe stewardship of the economy, and a return to “economic chaos” under Labour. Interestingly, when they have shifted the target of their attack from Labour’s competence to its leader’s personality, they have come unstuck.   Michael Fallon’s recent attack on Ed Miliband as a “backstabber” backfired badly, with polls showing many were “repelled.” Negativity is one thing, but when things get personal, voters disapprove.


Labour’s strategy is also built less on their own strengths than their opponents’ weaknesses. Its first poster capitalised on perceptions of the Tories as out of touch and heartless, warning that the NHS (a traditional Conservative Achilles Heel) is at risk of cuts. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have taken defining themselves by who they’re not, rather than what they stand for, to a new level. Their first poster features images of Ed Balls and George Osborne, cautioning voters to ‘Look Left, Look Right, Then Cross”.    


One BBC pundit has bemoaned the lack of inspiration in the campaign, drily noting that the parties “seem to be making the drab offer of the last two wallflowers at the dance.” But it’s too easy to blame politicians (or those advising them on their PR) for running campaigns that don’t attempt to excite us about their own plans. Inviting media scrutiny of your agenda for Government can get you into all kinds of problems – it was the challenge of having to explain a complex and ambitious housing policy that resulted in the Greens’ Natalie Bennett being eviscerated on LBC. Not surprising then that her party’s new election broadcast leads on the reasons not to vote for anyone else – joking that the other party leaders are so alike that they could form a boy band. And it’s not as if voters pay much attention to, or believe, what’s in the parties’ manifestoes anyway. Only 15% of people are confident that the parties know how they will implement their promises in Government.


In any case, the choice on offer – when it comes to the two biggest parties at least – really isn’t between two distinct ideologies. With Labour’s rightward shift in the 90s and 00s, and the emergence of Cameron’s brand of socially liberal conservatism the centre ground is crowded. Last week, the Conservatives announced they would increase NHS funding by £8 billion, freeze rail fares, and introduce paid leave for volunteering, all of which are easy to imagine appearing in Labour or Liberal Democrat press releases. As one former Conservative speechwriter notes “This election is not about major differences – the policy differences are pretty minor.”


And of course, when there’ s little to choose between products, branding becomes more important. With the TV debates now a permanent fixture on the election landscape, there’s much more focus on the personalities of the party leaders, and, as in the US presidential debates, how they position and present themselves. Interestingly, most of the pundits who thought Miliband had ‘won’ the first big TV contest, cited not any points he made during his grilling by Jeremy Paxman, but the higher emotional pitch of his performance.   The perception that a candidate is sufficiently “passionate” in such debates is important - as Obama learned in his weakest TV debate in 2012.


Ultimately, however, what makes a political campaign memorable is not the carefully crafted campaigns themselves, but what happens to them when they clash with the real world.   The Elwood and Atfield gallery shows how one Tory poster campaign was repeatedly defaced, and social media has created a whole world of opportunities for mischief-makers to disrupt party messages.  Then there are the gaffes, the microphones accidentally left on, the unplanned encounters with furious voters, the eggs thrown. No amount of PR expertise can protect candidates from the chaos of the campaign trail, and it’s inevitable that unscripted moments like this will define the 2015 election, as it has those before it. The question isn’t just which party has the more compelling story to tell, but which best responds to the unpredictable factors that undermine their narratives."


Thanks Steve !


A graduate of our CIPR PR Diploma, Steve has is now  freelance consultant specialising in strategic communications and campaigning.  He has previously worked for the Green Party and the British Medical Association.