24 hours: A long time in political PR

Posted on 11/05/2011


The definition of ‘a long time in politics’ is shortening. It used to be a week of course. But in 24 hours from about 10.50pm on Thursday 5th May, the political landscape fundamentally changed.

In PR terms, it showed how desperately inadequate all the parties are. With (perhaps) one exception.

I’ve questioned for some time just how much politicians really understand PR or the benefits of a decent communications strategy (and the dangers of bad communications). The recent election made it painfully obvious just how little understanding there is.

Over the next few days, and with the wonderful benefit of hindsight, I’m going to take a pop at the political parties’ communications failures. Please feel free to join in!

The Lib Dems are probably the easiest place to start.

Private Eye Front Cover on Lib Dem Devastation

‘Meltdown’ screamed the headlines. Cleggomania turned to Cleggomonia. St Nick had become Nasty Nick.

But the signs were there that this would happen. Long suffering civil servants have complained that, in presentation and media handling terms, the Lib Dems just don’t get it (for example, the flush of government going to their heads as they fell for an obvious Telegraph sting operation). Shortly after the election Chris Huhne demonstrated this point as he went to ground rather than provide any comment at all about the speeding cover-up allegations.

And the voters, partly due to Labour campaigning and Tory antipathy toward their coalition partners, blamed them for allowing the cuts to take place (or if you’re on the right, not going far enough).

However, the real failing for the Lib Dems was the disastrous AV campaign. It started well, a nice positive campaign, based on grassroots and local campaigning. Traditional Lib Dem election comms tactics, bringing out the liberal left as well as the student and sandal brigade.

But soon the complications in the system began to be exposed and the Yes campaign just seemed unprepared for the ‘negative campaigning’ of the No campaign.

Given it was a campaign to say NO to something, I’m not sure what they expected?

There was no rapid rebuttal process in place, there was no methodology to bypass the anti-AV bias of the media, there was no alternative to Nick Clegg when it became obvious he was a liability (well, apart from Eddie Izzard, who the left seem to think is as popular with a housewife in Harrogate as with a housing officer in Hackney).

In the end panic set in, as one Yes campaigner admitted to The Guardian:

We even brought in an advertising man to save us. He came up with the idea of constructing a giant pin-striped bottom to take around the country for people to throw things at as a way of illustrating that AV makes MPs work harder. It was desperate stuff.

So, the Yes campaign brought in an ad man to save them? Well perhaps if they had a better communications strategy from the start, things wouldn’t have got so desperate?

Next: Labour public relations failings

Update 12.05.11: And so it seems the Lib Dems are placing the blame for their failings on their comms team. Well, while they certainly made mistakes, they were allowed to by their political masters.  Assuming they can find good people who want to work for them, let’s hope those on high start listening to their advice.

Update 13.05.11: For an insider’s take on what went wrong, check out Andy May’s excellent post on Liberal Conspiracy.