This has been an awful general election campaign. There’s been little positivity. And there’s a certain amount of election fatigue. Bluntly, the public have loathed it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. There has been some innovation and there have also been some useful reminders of core skills.
Variations on a theme
We often spend ages painstakingly crafting the perfect set of words. The most elegant, flowy, engaging words. But why? Why don’t we produce 5 variations on a theme? Or 50? Or 500?
In the past, when PRs were drafting press releases to try and get their key messages through a journalist and a sub-editor and into print, it made sense to put together something taut and purposeful. But even back in those days, a release that was tailored to its target was always more successful.
With social media you create as many variations on a theme as you like, target them as you wish, see the performance data and adjust as necessary. This is not to say the you should produce the comic sans eyesores the Conservatives have pushed out. You should, however, go back to the PR mindset that a one size fits all approach doesn’t work. It wasn’t effective with press releases, it’s not effective with content.
While embracing variation is good, losing discipline is not. The Conservatives have relentlessly bashed on about getting Brexit done. They’ve given their campaign a single focus and whether you agree with them or not, you unambiguously know what they stand for.
Meanwhile, Labour have been equally clear that they are for the many, not the few. It’s an unapologetically clear call to change the way our economy works. Again, whether you agree or disagree, you know what they stand for. The choice is clear.
This is classic comms. Stand for something. Be clear about what it is. Stick with it. Hammer the same message home in a million different ways. Be relentless. Above all, be consistent. Don’t let the message jump around.
Synonyms for good and bad
This one is something most people intuitively know but few formalise it. Some things are good and some things are bad. And if you’re associated with good things, you are good too.
If you can create an association with something good, there is a reputational halo to be gained.
In this country, to most people, the NHS is good. That’s why political parties scrap over it like there’s no tomorrow. Being the party who’ll protect the NHS, makes you a good party. It’s the same with schools (good), police officers (good), fire fighters (good) and tax cuts for the average person (good).
A poor understanding of this relationship is why so much CSR is ineffective. Like politicians chasing votes, companies throw a lot of resource at supporting good causes in the hope that some of the good will rub off on their reputations. It rarely works. BP, for example, have supported the arts for decades and for little reputational bounce, albeit they have facilitated the creation of some amazing art.
The effort must go deeper because the prize is a valuable one. If you can create an association with something good, there is a reputational halo to be gained. The catch is that you probably have to be good, as well as building the association, for it to really work. There are no quick wins here.
You can’t get off the rollercoaster
This topic probably deserves an article all to itself. It is about the speed communication and our insatiable desire for it. Perhaps controversially, I believe the fault lies with us, not technology.
For centuries, people have clamoured for gossip and tried to be the first to receive the news. The Economist’s Tom Standage provides a glimpse into our addiction and the varied pace and style of information sharing through the ages in Writing on the Wall. I highly recommend reading it.
Journalists used to joke that Sky News was “not wrong for long”
That innate desire for speedy news has also been conditioned by the same news media who now struggle to keep up with social media. In the UK, for decades the BBC was the only real game in town when it came to broadcast news. When Sky News launched in the 1990s it had a strategic challenge: how do you beat the authoritative news source? The answer was that if you couldn’t be more accurate than the BBC, you had to be faster than it. Sky was “first for breaking news”. Journalists used to joke that Sky News was “not wrong for long” as it ran with whatever information it had and then backfilled facts as they came through.
The other thing that came along with Sky in the 1990s was 24 hour rolling news. So along with the push for speed, there was now a need to always have something to report.
We had near enough two decades of constant bombardment with information that was corrected as more facts became available. That was pretty good market building for social media.
Speed isn’t going away. PRs will need to continue to adapt.
Old habits die hard
One of the recurring themes of this election has been the importance of tactical voting. The UK is seeing record levels of people considering switching their vote from the last election. According to Ipsos Mori, around two in five people (40%) might vote differently to how they usually would.
This is a powerful reminder of the power of habit, of repetition, of doing things because that’s just how you’ve always done them. These norms and defaults are hard to break. It has taken a divisive referendum and two quite nasty general elections for just two in five Brits to consider changing the way they vote; something they only do every few years or so.
How much harder is it for companies to change longstanding consumer patterns? It is a timely reminder that winning over customers or shifting opinion is hard graft and you need to play the long game in order to achieve it.