We may be fed up with elections, but even if we don’t have to endure another in six month’s time, last week’s General Election outcome has reset UK politics and provided some valuable PR lessons.
The way in which Theresa May’s campaign team ran the election has been roundly criticized; its architects were amongst the first to fall on their swords. So from a PR perspective what actually went wrong?
How did they manage to turn a massive (almost unprecedented) poll lead into a minority government in a few short weeks?
It is an extra-ordinary achievement given the apparent weakness of Labour’s leadership team in terms of policy and personality.
So here is a communications autopsy on the biggest political train-wreck since, well since last year, when the Brexit referendum destroyed David Cameron’s leadership.
Message rigidity: The era of rigid messaging is over. People simply laugh if you roll out the same message repeatedly and this is true whether you are Mrs May saying “strong and stable” for the hundredth time or a brand rolling out a corporate line.
From derision on BBC’s Question Time to wild satire on Twitter “strong and stable” generated every response from hilarity to irritation and finally contempt.
Rigid message discipline is an old-school, pre-social media approach. New Labour in pre facebook days were masters of controlled messaging using a matrix of specific messages tied to policy announcements or stunts, linked in turn to a schedule.
This approach gave campaign managers a framework from which to dictate the media terms of debate.
This drip-drip of message discipline worked because the limited supply of media could be controlled and there was a news cycle which was fairly predictable.
It worked particularly well before punters gained control of “counter messaging” through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Now the re-buff comes immediately, the repeat message becomes a stick to beat the messenger, particularly if the message looks less than credible.
“Strong and stable” may not have been a flawed foundation from which to build messages from, but it never evolved and it never extended into key territories such as the economy and the Brexit negotiations, which could have been explored to illustrate the central point.
And, there were no variations on the phrase. Why?
The campaign messaging ultimately stifled personality and flexibility at a time when personality and authenticity are more important in shaping people’s perceptions and opinions than accuracy and rationale.
Jeremy Corbyn and Trump before him have proved you can get facts wrong and even mislead if you do it with spirit. Being human is now as important as being professional.
Media miss-steps: The Prime Minister’s decision not to do the leaders TV debate even when Jeremy Corbyn opted at the last minute to take part was a major mistake. The Green Party’s co-leader Caroline Lucas said on the night ‘the first rule of leadership is to show up’.
Mrs May’s decision not to show up, created another negative story at a crucial juncture compounding doubts about her personality and reinforcing the perception of aloofness.
It also meant the Conservatives missing out not only on the TV audience, but the social opinion bubble that flowed from it.
Meanwhile the power of the tabloids and all newspapers to influence the public during the election is perceived to have weakened substantially. It wasn’t the Sun “wot won it”, but nor was the paper responsible for losing it either.
Where was the social media? The Conservatives didn’t seem to have a social media strategy to speak of. Incredible when marketing and political communications these days is digital first.
Labour appears to have had a pretty effective digital strategy and even provoked a clearly exasperated Daily Telegraph to lead with stories about Labour allegedly benefitting from hundreds of fake Twitter accounts pumping opinion on every event in the election across social media as it happened.
How real or fake that content was does not disguise the fact Labour benefitted from a 21st century campaign.
No grass roots movement and a shared vision of the future: President Obama’s first election victory is seen as the blueprint for modern political campaigning. The strategy combined hope with smart, personalized social media and grass roots events and campaigning.
Labour followed all three elements of this approach, offering a message that Britain could be a different place, free in their view of the political establishment and offering a more generous approach to economic management.
Labour’s policies might be flawed, or some people might say dangerous but what Labour was saying was at least optimistic in tone and crucially they took it to the streets.
The Conservatives offered no vision, no movement, no action.
Too personalized. Theresa May bet the house on her own personal brand rather than running a campaign for the Conservative Party. Don’t forget most people have had less than 12 months to get to know the Prime Minister.
Many people initially thought she was a solid reliable sort. A bit boring but her solidity was seen as what was needed given the UK will shortly be up against hardened European negotiators across the Brexit table.
Mrs May’s brand values were shredded by a series of policy reversals post Budget and during the campaign itself. The damage was compounded by not owning the political territory where she and the Conservatives were arguably strongest, Brexit, business and the economy.
Policies that were announced were ill-thought through, divisive and irrelevant (Fox hunting again – really?)
Her brand of dour reliability soon turned to suspicions of fragility, introspection and arrogance. This election proved a powerful point: people will change their mind if the reasons to do so are compelling enough.
These days those reasons can arrive thicker and faster than ever before. Any brand such as TalkTalk and VW that has endured a self-inflicted crisis could have told the Prime Minister this.
Where was the Conservative team? Elections are not solo sports and yet all we saw was Theresa May. The big beasts of the Conservative Party were rarely to be seen. Was that deliberate? Is the party too divided to deliver a unified message (Labour, riven by its own internal angst managed it).
So why was the cabinet sidelined and the Conservative brand which has been in business since 1834 barely used? Obvious questions, which only the small team of advisers around Mrs May can answer.