PR leadership lessons from UK Labour Party’s defeat

Photo of Ed Miliband unveiling #edstone

Ed Miliband unveils Labour’s pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings, on May 2. Photo: BBC

Corporate PR professionals can learn a lot from political PR professionals and political PR professionals can learn a lot from corporate PR professionals. I was reminded of this when I read Patrick Wintour’s excellent insiders’ account of the UK Labour Party’s election defeat.

The main lesson I draw from the article is that the boss and your client aren’t always right. One of the most important skills for a public relations professional is being able to diplomatically push back and persuade the client that they are wrong.

It appears that Ed Miliband was the classic ‘difficult client’. He appears to be a man of principle. A man of convictions. His problem appeared to be that he could think ‘big’ – his vision to focus on inequality and ‘small’ – his obsession with ‘retail’ policies like freezing household energy prices. But what he was unable to do was join the two together. He had no clear strategy or over-arching narrative to link his vision to his policy ideas. The ideas that were tried to link it all together were never developed properly.

For me the stand out sentence in the article was this:

“The team that Miliband had assembled around him consisted of highly intelligent individuals, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts – it was, according to many of those advisers, like a court in which opposing voices cancelled one another out.”

I’d been arguing for at least three to four years before the general election that Ed Miliband’s main problem is that he’d surrounded himself with the wrong people. The problem wasn’t necessarily a lack of talent, but too much talent. It gives me no pleasure to have been proved right.

There was no one on the team able to stand up to the client and others in the team to point out what was wrong and what should be done to fix it.

Some of the corporate PR leadership lessons I think we can draw from the Labour Party’s failure are:

OST – Objectives, Strategy, Tactics

The article paints a clear picture of a dysfunctional organisation obsessed by tactics and without any workable strategy. In the Art of War Sun Tzu says:

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

If you’ve identified the right objectives and strategy then neither should need to change much in the short term. What might cause them to be re-evaluated are monumental changes driven by external circumstances. In Labour’s case this was the surge of Scottish nationalism following on from the defeat of the independence movement in the September 2014 referendum.

Labour had lots of tactics, but very little strategy and suffered its worst defeat in living memory.

It is essential that you first define your public relations or communications objectives and from these decide your strategy. Your communications objectives should be directly related to your organisational or business objectives. Only then should you start thinking about your tactics.

One of the most frequent mistakes I see companies making is to start with the tactics – create a Facebook page, hold a news conference, set up a social media newsroom etc – without being clear about why they are doing it and what they intend to achieve.

OST - Objectives Strategy Tactics graphic

Fight lies with truth, but emotion beats facts

Alastair Campbell is another fan of my favourite PR leadership mantra – Objectives, Strategy, Tactics – and early on he identified a flaw in Ed Miliband’s desire to move on from New Labour. Ed Miliband’s desire to disassociate himself from Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s leadership meant he failed to defend Labour’s record in government. This allowed the Conservatives to lodge the emotional argument in people’s minds that Labour was responsible for the deficit, even though the facts proved the opposite.

Labour frequently makes the mistake of thinking that because the facts are on its side that it can win the arguments. The Democrats in the USA frequently make the same mistake. You saw it with the debate over Obamacare. The Democrats talked about the millions without the right healthcare who would be lifted into safety. The Republicans talked about the 92 year old grandmother in South Carolina who would be prevented from seeing her favourite doctor of 20 years.

Emotion beats facts.

To be fair Labour’s communications team recognised this, but did so in such a clumsy way that it opened Ed Miliband up to even more ridicule. Ed Miliband’s conference speech was riddled with references to real people such as “‘Gareth, whom Miliband had met while walking in Hampstead Heath”. It sounded horrendously fake.

Believable messages

Labour also failed to understand how messaging works in the modern era namely that you need to:

  1. Identify messages that work to help towards achieving your objectives
  2. Ensure these messages resonate with your audiences – do your stakeholders talk about them, do they care about them?
  3. KISS Keep It Simple Stupid – don’t make the messages too complicated, as there is too much competition for attention
  4. Communicate the meaning of the message, don’t constantly repeat tired old phrases that people can tune out of

The last is a topic I’ve written and talked about a lot. If your key message (as one of Labour’s was) is the ‘cost of living crisis’ then don’t keep saying ‘cost of living crisis’, but instead constantly talk about what you mean by it. Illustrate it with practical examples people can understand. But don’t keep repeating it ad nauseum.

Clear roles and responsibilities

Labour’s team had some very talented and experienced people with lots of expertise. But that was part of the problem, not the solution. Without clear leadership from Ed Miliband as leader of the party everyone thought that they were right and fought for their own ideas. If there had been clear objectives and a sensible strategy then ideas could have been questioned to ensure that particular tactic worked within the strategy.

Vigorous open discussions and disagreements are an essential part of making the right decisions. But within the discussions there needs to be a mechanism for making decisions and sticking to them.

Labour’s team suffered from too many senior people all vying for their ideas to be heard instead of concentrating on their own area of expertise and actually doing their jobs using their own skills and expertise.

Ed Miliband was leader of the party, but from reading the account there doesn’t appear to have been a real head of communications strategy. Instead there were lots of people with very senior sounding job titles. The Labour Party needed a head of public relations or chief communications officer that all of these talented individuals reported to.

In the corporate world I often argue that the head of public relations should have direct access to the CEO and c-suite/board, but shouldn’t be part of it as being one of the decision makers prevents you from providing the most effective counsel.

Developing the right public relations team

Many of the mistakes in the campaign could perhaps have been avoided had the right people, with the right skills being doing the right things. You get the impression that the many talented senior people in the team all wanted to ‘lead’, leaving some of the daily drudge and hard work to less experienced people who lacked the appropriate training and expertise.

The infamous #edstone while small in itself is symptomatic of the dysfunctional team. It is scarcely believable that the idea of carving Labour’s six election pledges onto a giant stone tablet and unveiling it in a car park actually got beyond the first brainstorm, let alone surviving 10 separate planning meetings.

Digital doesn’t exist separately – it’s all just public relations

The final Labour Party conference speech before the election was always going to be a key moment in the campaign. How is it possible that the need to change it at the last minute couldn’t be foreseen? How could it not be foreseen that attempting to deliver it from memory would mean that it would be very different from the original script?

The fact that the ‘digital team’ spent the original version of the speech out, which included the missing paragraphs on the deficit, highlights the problem of not having digital and social as a core skill for every member of the PR and communications team. An experienced PR shouldn’t have made that mistake. It shouldn’t have been a ‘digital’ or ‘social’ expert doing it, but a PR expert.

Watch out for dead cats

Jeez mate there's a dead cat on table cartoonLabour believed it had a popular new policy to unveil during the short election that would give it a poll boost. It was to abolish the loophole that allowed non-domiciled residents of the UK to pay no tax on foreign income. Labour’s communications team believed it could dominate two full days of the mainstream news agenda.

However, Lynton Crosby, the Conservative’s Australian campaign director responded with a classic ‘dead cat’ tactic. London mayor Boris Johnson describes it thus:

“There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’ In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat – the thing you want them to talk about – and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”

You have to be prepared for your competitors using such tactics and think about the practical and ethical considerations of using such tactics yourself.

Strategic public relations leadership

These are just a few quick observations of what public relations professionals can learn from Labour’s failure, most of which are down to a chronic lack of PR leadership.

If you’re interested in the concept of public relations leadership then I’d urge you to read Strategic Public Relations Leadership by Professor Anne Gregory and Paul Willis. It’s a slender tome which strikes just the right balance between academic theory and practical management advice.

Through my PR consultancy work I help companies, governments and organisations all over the world to modernise their public relations and corporate communications strategies and ensure their teams have the skills needed to deliver modernised PR strategy. If you want a chat about how I can help you modernise your PR strategy and PR team then please get in touch.