Communications and campaigning has to be different in 2015

David Cameron launching "Let's stay on the road to a stronger economy" posterIn the UK general election fever is already dominating the news more than four months before the actual election giving the electorate (note I don’t say voters) more than long enough to get turned off and disillusioned. Yesterday’s Guardian had an article on the Conservative Party’s latest campaign debacle when it emerged its first election campaign poster “Let’s stay on the road to a stronger economy” showed not a British road, but a German road. David Shariatmadari said “Party strategists must be scratching their heads…” but I’m not convinced they will be, because I’m not convinced the strategists in any of the parties actually get it and for all their fine words about new campaigning just want to use the same old tactics they are familiar with.

In Friday’s Guardian Labour election strategist Douglas Alexander said that “we fight this election, conversation by conversation, doorstep by doorstep”. In a speech yesterday Ed Miliband said Labour would have four million conversations. As a Labour activist who does knock on doors I don’t believe them. Douglas and Ed don’t actually mean real conversations where you really listen and respond to what people are saying to you. They mean knocking on someone’s door with the main intention of finding out how they will vote. That’s not a conversation. It’s what’s known in the trade as Voter ID. And that’s just rude.

But that’s not a criticism of Labour as all the parties are guilty of it. There are big benefits for them in knowing who their voters are so they can remind them to vote on election day. But what’s the benefit for the voter?

Labour even bribes its candidates to do voter ID with extra finances available to constituencies who meet their voter ID targets. Offensiveness is thus built in to the official campaign strategy.

Writing on Labour Uncut David Talbot makes an excellent job of highlighting Alexander’s ineptitude by showing how his exciting new campaign strategy for 2015 was almost exactly the same as his exciting new – and failed – campaign strategy for 2010. But it’s not that the strategy is wrong, it’s that he doesn’t really mean it.

Fighting a word of mouth campaign and having conversations is absolutely what political parties should be doing. But they have to be genuine conversations which means ditching the antiquated simplistic messaging formulas. Yes it’s vital to keep talking about the same ideas and themes as you’ve got to get through when people are being bombarded by thousands of other pieces of information or content every day. But slavishly repeating exactly the same phrase over and over again just turns people off and makes them tune out. It makes no difference if it’s in a TV interview or a campaign newsletter delivered through the door. You can continually repeat the idea behind the message, but only if you constantly adapt it to the circumstances and use your own words.

Putting up ministers and shadow ministers to do broadcast interviews where they just attack their opponents instead of articulating what they believe in and will do just turns people off.

Labour’s first election poster to ‘Save the NHS’ was no better than the Tory effort.

I’ve not spoken to many non-political activist people who genuinely believe the Tories will destroy the NHS. Yet that’s Labour’s message. But most people I speak to do believe that the NHS will be better off with Labour than under the Tories. Why can’t Labour drop the spin and make that the message?

Shariatmadari’s article highlights other failed election posters, but there are numerous other campaign gaffes he could have mentioned as this isn’t a new phenomena. I’m old enough to remember Jennifer’s Ear from 1992 (now an interview with Jennifer today might be a good news piece).

What the campaign strategists of all parties fail to understand is how society has changed. Driven in part, but not wholly, by the internet and social media. One of key points that I teach in my modernised PR strategy courses is that today you simply have to be better than you’ve ever been before. There is less scope for mistakes as you’re more likely to be caught out. But people can understand and forgive mistakes, what they can’t, won’t and shouldn’t forgive is deliberate deception and incompetence. In the commercial world Nokia learnt this to its cost when it launched what was genuinely the world’s best camera phone, but blew it by allowing its advertising agency to fake photos claimed to be taken on it, but actually taken on a professional SLR camera.

That’s why political parties come unstuck when they use stock photos and clichéd images. They lack authenticity and honesty. And with millions of people capable of ferreting out and sharing the truth you can’t afford to be anything other than honest and authentic. But, in the real world of communications and campaigning you’re up against tight deadlines, with too few people to do the work and not enough money to buy what you need. How do campaigners solve this conundrum?

I believe the best way, if not the only way, is simply to be transparent about the process. When every piece of campaign collateral is published then also publish the story behind it. How did the idea come about? What were the sources of the facts? Where did the images come from? Who are the people quoted? Who approved and authorised it? That way there are no nasty secrets to come out and spoil it. If everything is above board then this background information will simply be ignored. But if you can’t be honest about the answers to these questions then that should ring alarm bells and tell you that you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.