This entry updated 8 May after a Conservative win. 8 May comments in italics.
The run-up to the General Election in the UK has made for fertile ground for communications specialists and media training companies such as mine. Here are some key lessons, both from delivery and from the messaging point of view – my own politics may show through here, which is not my intention; I’m aiming to offer neutral insights on all of the howlers that have been dropped.
- Don’t insult your audience. Last week UKIP leader Nigel Farage accused his audience of being left wing and referred to them as “this lot”. He’s now asked lawyers to investigate. Let’s leave politics out for the moment; even if he’s correct, he handed everybody else the moral high ground by dishing out insults. If you’re presenting on behalf of your business and you feel the audience has been stacked against you, remain above it – don’t hand them a moral victory without a fight. I stand by this one. Farage could have kept the audience on side and failed.
- Take part. The Conservatives have tried to paint David Cameron as Prime Ministerial and above last Thursday’s debate; however, in absenting himself he left the other leaders to say what they wanted about him unfettered. For him it’s a calculated risk, for you the gamble might not be worth taking. If there’s going to be a debate that concerns your brand, make sure you’re there to put your side when given the opportunity. I’d stand by this one too except three of the other leaders in the debate have now resigned. Whatever your politics, I suspect you have to concede that Cameron and his team read this exactly right.
- Don’t assume the other people will fall to pieces when you want them to. I have no inside information but it looks a lot as though the Conservatives gambled on two things. First, they assumed the rather awkward Ed Miliband would fall apart in election debates. Second, specifically last Thursday, they assumed the other parties, without the coalition members present, would end up bickering and a sprawling mess and put the public off. Neither thing happened. All Miliband has had to do during this election, and all he and the other leaders had to do last week, was to look averagely eloquent and civilised and undecided voters were left wondering whether these people were such a bad alternative..? If you’re pitching your idea to the public or to the press, make sure you’re not assuming the others will screw up and leave you to it. They may not. Make your own case. I’d still suggest clients make their cases properly but, once again, I suggest Cameron and the team read the electorate’s collective view correctly.
- Stick to your message. Since neither main party has pulled significantly ahead, we now have Labour claiming to be the party of economic competence and the Conservatives aiming for the workers’ vote. Now, I don’t believe for a moment that the previous caricatured extremes were ever true – but the sudden switching of priorities looks cynical and artificial. If you’re promoting your business and detect a lull in interest, don’t panic and change all your messages – nobody will believe you and your clients are bright enough to know panic when they see it. See above. It’s a gamble and a gamble that paid off for one side and may have been part of the disaster for the other.
- Prepare, even if you’re under the impression it’s an interview about stuff you know. The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 had an excruciating interview on Saturday, not with a politician but with a community leader(ish) of a group of American émigrés in Scotland. James Naughtie asked her about comparisons between our current election and the forthcoming US Presidential version; it was clear from the umm-ing, the aah-ing and his attempts to finish sentences – not putting words in her mouth but trying to help – that she’d put no thought or preparation in at all. That didn’t matter this time around, she wasn’t pushing anything or standing for election. However, if you’re ever invited to take part in a media discussion, even if you have only a short time to prepare, you need to make sure you have something to say. Make a point, be memorable – whatever you do, don’t let your first word be “Ummm…….” This remains completely right!