Maja Pawinska Sims 12 Dec 2019 // 12:28PM GMT
LONDON — As the British public queue at polling stations around the country to vote in the UK’s third General Election in five years, we took a snap poll of leading UK public affairs professionals and asked them to name their highlights of the often-contentious and fairly grim six-week campaign – if they had one – and the (many) low points.
We also asked our 13 pundits what their biggest communications lesson or takeaways had been from an election where every major party, and many media outlets, appear to have sailed close to the wind in terms of their use of social media, data, and misinformation.
But despite their fairly unrelenting negative responses to the campaign, senior public affairs professionals don’t appear to think that much will change: the PRCA’s poll of its PA members this week found that three quarters predicted an overall Conservative overall majority, and not one predicted a Labour overall majority.
Tony Langham, CEO, Lansons
“Highlights: that brief moment in week one when it looked like we might actually be going to have a serious national debate about climate change. While it didn’t last, it is now there, higher up the agenda. And whatever happens, we will spend more on the NHS and build more houses than we would have done without an election.
“Low point: every single day when media coverage is dominated by a phone in a pocket or a secretly recorded conversation or a leaked email rather than a big issue.
“Comms takeaways: You can’t change an established narrative in a five week campaign. If you hold your nerve, plausible deniability is more effective than it should be. Key messages need simplicity, clarity, repetition as we all know but occasionally forget. Get Brexit done and Save our NHS have worked, nothing else has, although arguably the LibDems have communicated Stop Brexit, it just hasn’t worked. Sometimes dodging being interviewed is still better than doing a bad interview.”
Guto Harri, advisor, Hanover, and former BBC chief political correspondent
“In a rare Christmas election, a parody of the most feel-good seasonal movie had to be on the cards for a Prime Minister who can’t resist a little role play. And as polling day was virtually on top of us, up pops Boris in one of the most memorable scenes from Love Actually, one that reminds us all we often have to settle for something we don’t really want.
"In the Conservatives’ spoof, Boris is urging us to let go of any lingering hopes of stopping Brexit and accepting that the least worst option at this stage is getting it done. In its psychologically-potent pitch, in its Christmassy resonance and in reminding us that our PM is up for almost anything that gets him noticed, this piece of content strangely sums up the election, for better or worse.
"The contrast – which happened almost simultaneously – was an audio recording of a shadow cabinet member saying what he really thought of the Labour leader and the “dismal” prospect for his party. It was a brutal reality check on the Love Actually-type fantasy that Jeremy Corbyn will be the Christmas PM. It’s not happening, unless life at this late stage really is stranger than fiction.”
Katie Thrift, public affairs director, Grayling
“This is the election nobody wants to predict, and while it’s only been a few short weeks, it has felt much longer. It was encouraging to see a surge of people registering to vote ahead of the deadline, a record number in a single day, and this is also the election where climate change has been front and centre, with the first television debate dedicated to the topic.
“Unfortunately however, this campaign has been marred by evidence of disinformation from across the political divide, and as an industry we must be agile in responding to the risks this can pose.
“Finally, as a communications professional, every election seems to prove two simple rules; ensure you are fully briefed, and always assume your microphone is still on.”
Tim Snowball, head of public affairs, FleishmanHillard Fishburn, and former director of communications for the Liberal Democrats
“Highlight: the emergence of the ‘remain alliance’ electoral pact in Lib Dem, Plaid Cymru and Green target seats. While it may ultimately prove insufficient to yield results in the face of such a commanding Tory lead, especially given the Brexit Party’s withdrawal from Conservative-held seats, this deal was a rare example of tactical cooperation for a higher cause and may be an important signal of opposition politics to come.
“Low point: the ability of the governing party to dictate the terms of the TV debates and the consequential two-party presidentialisation of the election campaign. The lack of detail in broadcaster impartiality rules hands a huge strategic gift to the Conservatives and Labour Party, powerfully supporting their squeeze on third-party support. And by ducking the seven-ways and more challenging interviews, Boris has had a relatively free ride throughout this campaign, which cannot be good for democracy.
“Comms lesson: the Conservatives provided a masterclass in deflection. Whether in the deployment of Gove and Boris’ dad, with a camera crew, to prove Conservative willing to participate in the Channel 4 environment debate, or the release of shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth’s real views on his leader following Boris’ ill-judged ‘pocket-gate’ at Leeds General Hospital, the Tories have shown a remarkable and sometimes creative ability to stay in control of the campaign narrative.”
Jenny Scott, founding partner, Apella
“Low point: the air of mistrust that lingered over all the campaigns. Politics and cynicism is hardly a new mix, but it’s plunged to a new low which can only be damaging for public discourse and policy making.
“High point: Michael Spicer’s The Room Next Door. Wonderful.
“Key takeaway: Trying to run a populist campaign from an over-media-trained perspective just doesn’t work. The two are fundamentally contradictory. It underestimates the great British public’s nose for authenticity – long may that last.”
Jamie Lyons, MD and head of public affairs, Engine MHP
“Campaign highlight: not a highlight as such, but as an ex-journalist, the Mirror’s NHS crisis story was a key point. When you hear other journalists comparing it to Prescott’s punch, Jennifer’s Ear and Bigot-gate you know you’ve done well, particularly in an election where the parties have fought so hard to control the story.
“Low point: we’ve had people working on all the main campaigns, so I am not taking sides here, but the avoidance of real scrutiny by Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. The dull leadership debates, the refusal to do big interviews, the lack of daily press conferences and battle buses. The party machines have been so nervous about making mistakes, it has meant a pretty stultifying campaign.
“Comms lesson: the need to connect. Two of the big moments of the campaign were Boris Johnson’s refusal to discuss the photo of a child sleeping on a hospital floor and Jeremy Corbyn’s tortuous Andrew Neil interview where he refused to say sorry for antisemitism. In both case their fear of saying the wrong thing made the story much worse.”
Gemma Doyle, MD, strategic communications – public affairs, FTI Consulting
“Highlight: video has been an important communication tool in this campaign, with more candidates seeking to reach voters with higher quality short films than before. My personal favourites have been David Gauke’s lighthearted efforts (often featuring his dad!) The public often have a more favourable opinion of their local candidates and MPs than politicians as a group, so showing personality and who you really are can help cut through, especially important when voters are generally fed up of the current political scene.
“Low point: in the wake of a photo that showed a child sleeping on a hospital floor, Momentum activists mobilised to try and disrupt a visit by health secretary Matt Hancock to Leeds General Infirmary. Whilst this is a well-used campaign technique, it arguably crossed the line between protest and harassment. In heated scenes outside it was alleged that a Momentum activist punched Hancock’s adviser. This allegation – pushed by figures at CCHQ and then repeated by journalists – turned out to be false. The incident showed the worst elements of electioneering from all parties.
“Comms lesson: message matters. The Conservatives have stuck religiously to the mantra that they will ‘Get Brexit Done’ – so much so that voters are now repeating it back to them, which is the holy grail of political campaigning. In contrast Labour have pushed out so much policy that they have suffered from not having one clear message on the doorstep or in the media.”
Mark Glover, CEO, Newington Communications
“High point: the end of an underwhelming and uninspiring campaign.
“Low point: the failure of Boris Johnson to appear in front of Andrew Neil undermined the role of the media in providing critical analysis of the election. Although tactically I understand why the Conservatives did it, his failure to appear in front of Neil and on the Channel Four environmental debate smacked of a leader not prepared to face scrutiny.
“Takeaway: there is a real need to update electoral law to adequately cover online campaigning. Too much is said online which is not attributed and much which is plainly false. We need to reflect in law the move from leaflet/billboard based campaigns to digital campaigns to ensure that we retain a vigorous democracy.”
Oliver Foster, CEO, Pagefield
“My highlight for this campaign belongs not to the candidates running for election but to those following them. While still not perfect, media scrutiny and interrogation of party politicians of all stripes has been particularly acute this campaign; with broadcasters’ fact-checking services operating at breakneck speed and interviewers such as Andrew Neil and Joe Pike winning well-deserved acclaim for their incisive questioning. My only note of caution on this front is the increasing trend for certain broadcast journalists to tweet and broadcast their views, as opposed to them reporting.
“Low point: London Bridge and how the political class have handled the tragedy since. Where my concerns arose, and have grown since, is the accusations from all sides that their opponents either are trying to make political capital out of the tragedy or it is their party’s fault for the tragedy happening in the first place. At a time when every side should have dialled down the rhetoric in the national interest, instead they were all responsible for feeding the trial-by-Twitter approach to politics that is in serious danger of turning this country’s political system into one of the least-informed, most angry and knee-jerk in the western world.
“Comms lesson: our attention spans are shorter than ever. This election campaign has proven that we no longer live in a 24-hour news cycle but a 24-second one. Our attention is harder to capture than ever, with research finding that ‘get Brexit done’ is the only message to cut through with much of the electorate. The Conservatives have decided to keep things simple this time round, further demonstrated by a manifesto which is thinner than Dominic Raab’s predicted majority. With voters increasingly uninterested in the detail, expect many more years of party leaders reading out mean tweets and re-enacting scenes from popular rom-coms.”
Elin de Zoete, managing director, PLMR
“This has been an election campaign where high points have been harder to spot, but no party has emerged without some significant reputation blows. From falsifying historic emails in the Lib Dems, to being recorded being disloyal to the leader in Labour and Jacob Rees Mogg’s ill-judged comments on Grenfell, which saw him squirrelled away for the rest of the campaign.
“One lesson we have learnt from the harrowing picture of a four-year-old lying on a hospital floor this week is that however deep you are in the trenches of campaigning, throwing grenades at one another, you must always show empathy for human suffering. This will connect with people or turn them off more than anything else. Just ask Prince Andrew…”
Gavin Devine, director and founder, Park Street Partners
“This has been a deeply depressing election, another twist in the downward spiral that has been British politics for the past 20 or 30 years. To an extent political parties always make promises that are at best optimistic and at worse highly unlikely ever to be delivered (aka lies), but this one has gone several steps further with the whole exercise being based on untruths. The Tories are not going to sell off the NHS to the Americans. Jo Swinson is not going to be Prime Minister. And, above all, we are not going to get Brexit done by 31 January, a whopper that will be exposed within weeks and ought to severely damage Boris Johnson (but probably won’t).
“It is really hard to pick a lowlight, because it has been a parade of lowlights. But probably the lowest of the low moments came with the publication of the Conservative manifesto, which includes an overt threat to the judiciary and democracy dressed up in bland procedural language a 1920s European totalitarian would admire. And yet, unforgivably, Boris Johnson has faced no serious questions about it.
“I’m struggling to think of a highlight. I did enjoy the empty chairing of Boris in the Channel 4 climate debate, the steady drip of melting ice a strong reminder of the urgency of the need for decarbonisation and for politicians to make really difficult and unpopular decisions if we are going to get anywhere near net zero by 2050. Speaking of the leaders’ debates, the big comms lesson was given every time Jo Swinson and Nicola Sturgeon appeared. One was so over-rehearsed she seemed inauthentic and trite; the other naturally engaging and right on top of her brief. In fact Nicola Sturgeon is the big winner of this election, by virtue of being the only leader who was not entirely mediocre, meaningless or mendacious.”
Mark Lowe, co-founder, Third City
“If elections are defined by the level of the debate, then this one has been an inch deep and an ocean wide. Labour’s spending pledges were so relentless that you’d forget by lunchtime what the trillion you’d been promised at breakfast was even for. Boris Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ was an even emptier vessel of a slogan than ‘Take Back Control’ and Jo Swinson became the latest Lib Dem not to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
“The high points for me were the rise of Angela Rayner, a politician who famously left school pregnant at 16 and when compared to the Tory front bench makes you wonder whether we should be funding higher education at all. And despite some of his more ludicrous spending commitments, John McDonnell looked a cut above his rivals in gravitas; I particularly enjoyed his head-to-head with John Caudwell on Radio 4.
“A final mention to the BBC, which with a few notable exceptions has had its worst election in living memory; it should leave the glib podcasts, horse-race commentary, personal brand-building and stenography to the commercial sector and get back to providing a public service.”
Steve Earl, UK managing director, APCO Worldwide
“From a communications perspective, the campaign failed to live up to even muted expectations, with far more fudge than fireworks, and the occasional faux pas. At times, given the bind the country is in, the bickering has turned the stomach.
“A lowlight spawned a highlight for me: Boris’s dropping of the mask by snatching a phone from a reporter and pocketing it was a moment of madness, but brightened by Yorkshire Post editor James Mitchinson’s admirable reposte on trusted journalism when faced with social media mistruths about the incident. Mitchinson has a habit of rising above the sludge with grace – let’s hope our politicians can follow suit in time.”