Although public relations practice in politics is often derisively referred to as ‘spin’, a successful election campaign depends very much on a good public relations strategy. To win popular support, a political leader has to build a relationship with the electorate by communicating his/her message clearly and effectively. Both social media and traditional media are crucial vehicles for a leader to communicate to different audiences. Some notably successful political public relations examples include Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ campaign and David Cameron’s 2015 election campaign focusing on the economy. In both cases, the messages were clear and positive, which enabled them to engage voters and consequently increase support for their respective campaigns. What comes to mind when you think of the images of the political leaders in the most recent UK general election campaign?
The past few months have born witness to the many flaws of Theresa May’s public relations strategy which ultimately resulted in a campaign that failed to secure the landslide win for which she had hoped. The first of May’s failings was in her poor use of political rhetoric. Her repeated use of the phrase “strong and stable” was too ambiguous to persuade voters to believe in her message and was further undermined by several policy U-turns. The phrase immediately became hysterical and meaningless when voters listened to it ad infinitum.
Second, although she has successfully styled herself as the best person for the job of negotiating Brexit, she didn’t spell out clearly and positively the merits and necessity of many Conservative party policies. For example, the lack of clarity over social care policy led to an embarrassing U-turn that irreparably damaged her campaign.
Third, to inspire confidence in one’s abilities as a leader, one needs to engage with the public while displaying accountability and leadership. A survey during the 2015 general election has found that more than a third of voters were influenced by the TV debates between the political leaders in the run-up to the election. When she shied away from televised public debates, she arguably squandered the chance to gain support from swing voters. In addition, her appearance in the campaign trail, which appeared inauthentic and stage-managed, demonstrated starkly her inability to relate to voters on a personal level. In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower incident, she also failed to show empathy and compassion in a manner which the public would expect from her.
By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn performed particularly well in managing his public image. Just like the successful campaigns in the past, his campaign offers a refreshing and clear message to the public. He can be seen campaigning with scores of supporters rallying around him. Contrary to May, he sounds authentic and human. Despite being criticised as unelectable previously, he seized on every opportunity to address the public and strengthen his popularity in the recent election campaign.
Is there anything the Conservative party could do in its public relations strategy in order to reverse the decline in seats in the next general election? There are perhaps a few key actions the Conservative party have to take in order to regain support. Firstly, they should attempt to win over the support for the Labour party among young people. The support for the Conservative party among young people was very low in the recent election and this begs the question of why hasn’t May been able to replicate the appeal that Corbyn has on young people? As Tim Knox and Daniel Mahoney noted in “Offering the Young a Good Deal”, there are Conservative policies that are attractive to young people. However, there arguably wasn’t enough engagement with young people in the last election campaign. In the next election campaign, more needs to be done to carve out a value proposition that is tailored towards young people. Secondly, the Prime Minister, Theresa May definitely has to step-up her engagement with the wider public by having a more coherent message and communication strategy. This is not something she can afford to avoid.
The positive aspect of the Conservative party’s brand throughout the 2015 election campaign was economic literacy or “a safe pair of hands” during post-crisis time. In this election, the overwhelming focus seemed to be shifted from the economic record to Brexit negotiations. Certainly, more promotion efforts on the positives - the economic track records of Conservative including low unemployment rate, increased foreign direct investment and other key achievements will be crucial if the party are to win in the next election.
It might be an evident truth that politicians, who will always be under extreme public scrutiny, have to make sure they have a good public relations strategy and always display a thoughtful and positive brand image. The best policy in the world wouldn’t be accepted by the public if the messenger, in this case the prime minister, couldn’t connect and communicate with the people.