279: A short guide to modern political communications
You cannot scroll through Twitter or LinkedIn without coming across a post expressing clear views on government communications. They are either the worst we have ever witnessed or brilliant despite the obvious challenges of COVID-19. But we need to remember that politics sits behind all these communications.
It is also important to remember that the mission of the Government Communication Services is to deliver:
‘world-class public service communications which supports ministers priorities, enables the efficient and effective operation of public services, and improves people’s lives’.
This contrasts it with more overtly political communications from No 10, special advisers and others. When many complain about the quality of government communications they are really talking about the latter.
This era of political communications appears to have a number of themes and it is important to appreciate those when trying, as we do in public affairs, to engage with government as well as MPs.
- Never apologise – the chances of getting an apology out of government if something goes wrong is now near zero. Why? Because an apology would show that a mistake had been made and this could apply pressure on any individuals involved. To apologise is a sign of weakness. If there is to be an apology then make it the fault of a mutant algorithm rather than ministerial decisions.
- U-turn if you want to – this government is certainly unafraid to U-turn even if they have first of all defended their decision. But it seems that it is better to U-turn and move on rather than letting the issue fester which risks people remembering it.
- Carrying the can – ministers will be protected at all costs. Those around them could find themselves out but the core team must remain in place. If changes are to be made then that will be at the sole discretion of the PM, not the media or opposition parties.
- Always dominate the agenda – use whatever communications tools are at your disposal to maintain the impression of a time of constant reform and drive. If necessary, use excessive, dramatic language – ‘world beating’, ‘best ever’, ‘worst ever’, and ‘turbo-charge’.
- Ignore the main issue and concentrate on you – whatever the issue at hand, feel completely free to talk about what you want and get your messages across. What you think is important should be the focus, not the questions being asked.
- Be led by the data – if anyone thought that New Labour was focus group led then the current administration has turned it up to 11. The constant flow of be information at the very least informs decision-making and maybe even sometimes leads it.
- Get your ‘facts’ out first – by the time that anyone can unpick or fact check the information it will be too late. As the government, your statements will be repeated in any case and this means your ‘facts’ will always feature and will dominate discussion.
None of these approaches are without risks. The constant u-turns are considered by many to be undermining the authority of government and the more there are, the more likely it is that a cumulative effect will build up. That may not matter if you consider that a change of leadership could easily signify a new dawn. In other words, if Johnson were to step down / be removed then the conservative party under a new leader would be a new government with a clean slate. So far Johnson has managed to pull this approach off to help distance his government from those of Cameron and May.
The use of ‘centralised’ data may be one of the reasons why individual MPs feel ignored and excluded. In the past, the link between an MP and their constituency was used as a source of information. Under the current modern communications such information appears too wedded to a particular area and isn’t as granular as focus group research can be.
Although not strictly part of the government communications, we are seeing more appointments apparently being made on a political basis – friends of Johnson, those with clear links to the conservative etc. This is nothing new but the apparent move into the civil service space is.
Then we apparently have a Fox News-style TV station to look forward to as well. If a more overtly political channel starts to make serious inroads then that too will have an impact.
With all these in mind you can start to see how modern political communications can impact on engagement and plan your public affairs campaign according.