Five communications lessons from the Conservative’s GE2017 campaign

June 12, 2017 • 5 minute read

June 8 2017 was, once again, further evidence that no matter how thorough and nuanced the methodology, today’s political landscape is just too murky, too diffuse to predict in advance. From a starting lead of around 20 points according to most polls, the Conservative party is now actually polling behind Labour in some.

This unpredictability was, in many ways, Theresa May’s undoing. Spotting a chance, perhaps justly, to solidify a tenuous power base in advance of probably the UK’s most important period of diplomatic, political and economic negotiations since the Paris Peace Treaties, the Conservative’s, opposed by a Labour party led by the decidedly marmite Jeremy Corbyn, saw a relatively easy victory in sight. So easy, so apparently predictable was the outcome, that many of the principles all communicators know are key to a successful campaign were left by the way side.

TV-led elections are here to stay

Evidently Theresa May’s confidence in the polls’ predictions contributed to the decision to spurn TV and radio. The 2010 elections, and the subsequent rise of Nick Clegg, showed the power of broadcast to catapult an outsider to stardom and there was clearly fear that once mainstream voters got to see May v Corbyn live, the chinks in Mrs May’s armour would have been revealed all the more soon. The few media appearances she did make, including the infamous ‘fields of wheat’ fiasco, did little to show voters her human side and refusing to take part in the more challenging media set-pieces led to negative headlines and accusations of cowardice that soon outweighed the go-to message of ’strong and stable leadership’.

The local media matter too

Refusing to take part in the biggest interviews and debates may, in and of itself, not have rung the death knell had it not been for the fact that there was little authentic engagement done elsewhere either. Theresa May claimed from the outset that she didn’t do TV because she believed in old fashioned campaigning that put her out in real communities, but those communities didn’t get to see her, with many of her appearances conducted behind a wall of minders and preaching to the converted local membership. In some cases, even the local media were barred from attending let alone opposition or even undecided voters. For much of the time, therefore, the only May those undecided voters got to see was either invisible or a lampoon – caricatured both by journalists she managed to alienate and the army of online meme-creators ready and willing to lend their talents to the Corbyn-cause.

Social media can win elections

As the dust settled on the election result, it was clear that Labour won the social media battle. While the Conservative campaign was criticised for being attack-ad-driven, often targeting voters who were already signed up, Labour was able to cultivate and inspire digital communities to take the message to the online streets. Analysis suggested that while the Conservatives spent around £1m on digital advertising, and produced a video that attracted more views than any other online political campaign advert in British history, the fact that these very often focussed on negative portrayals of the opposition didn’t have the same inspirational effect that Labour managed. Labour’s adverts were seen in more than double the number of constituencies in the last two days of the campaign than the Conservatives’ and, through harnessing the power of third party endorsement from both celebrities and groups like Momentum, the party’s social numbers outgunned the Conservatives who were too slow and ponderous – who apparently sometimes took days to push out a social ad.

Mixed messages derail campaigns

On the one hand, the Conservative communications team could be praised for controlling the narrative of the election, through both the media clamp-down and their rigorous commitment to the party’s key messages. This mechanical approach, while concise and understandable, became as robotic as the leader espousing it and voters soon became bored, if not exasperated, by the repetition; will anyone seriously be able to put the words ‘strong’ and ‘stable’ together again? This devotion to what has been called ‘brutal simplicity’ may not have been quite so damaging had it not also been accompanied by an underlying current of confusion and gamesmanship. With the Conservatives clearly targeting working-class voters, splicing in a manifesto commitment to reviewing anti-fox hunting legislation made many believe that the so-called ‘nasty party’ had never really been superseded by ‘compassionate Conservatism’. Likewise, the sudden emergence of controversial policies –  most notably the ‘dementia-tax’ – alienated traditional members of the Conservative demographic, caught everyone off guard and painted a picture of an incoherent party.

Authenticity and relatability wins the day

As any PR pro today knows, the most effective campaigns are those which connect with audiences on multiple levels – from the intellectual to the emotional. To do this, brands need to understand the issues that their target audiences care about and tell compelling, inspiring, useful stories that engage them and encourage actions. This is as true of political campaigning as it is of B2B and B2C marketing, from law firms to sports brands.  Simply put, the Conservatives’ story, let alone its storyteller-in-chief, didn’t move voters. Labour, with Jeremy Corbyn’s populist message that was delivered consistently, with authenticity, and across diverse platforms and channels, did.

The analysts will be picking over the wreckage of this election for a good while yet and the upheaval has left the UK in a far more precarious position than just a couple of months ago. What is certain, though, is that communicators have seen it demonstrated once again that there is a world of difference between controlling a narrative and stifling it, and that a bunker mentality just doesn’t cut it anymore. From positive campaigns to crisis management, audiences demand authenticity, transparency and relatability.