“PR” and communication with voters

Posted on: March 16, 2007

Frank Luntz’s article in The Guardian (March 16, p.39) is a research-based demonstration of why “spin” dressed up as public relations and political communications is bound to fail. [,,2035405,00.html]. 

When authentic voices are lost, voters switch off. Luntz has reported on research amongst a panel of voters in England’s second city, Birmingham that found deep disenchantment with soundbite politics and “PR stunts”. Most of the panel believed that this was the characteristic of the Blair years (since 1997) and now featured amongst all parties.

Taking the example of Opposition leader David Cameron (himself a former public relations practitioner), the panel switched off when shown a web video of life in the Cameron household. The reaction, says Luntz, was “predictably negative” as it was seen as a PR-stunt. “Voters crave something real.”  When Cameron spoke from the heart that the policy changes he was proposing would include “pain and sacrifice”, they warmed to him as it was an authentic voice that made statements which the voter panel accepted as realistic.

The lessons for Cameron and other UK politicians were that after a decade of soundbite culture, “voters are more savvy and wary of anybody who sounds too good to be true”. Being aspirational and visionary is acceptable, as long as it is balanced with reality in the manner in which change and progress will be delivered.

The external view of public relations is that it is based on spin and publicity, a cocktail of one-way communication and deception. But the really effective public relations programmes are those which engage with stakeholders in their many and varied form and build a relationship based on mutual interests with an authentic voice. Political parties (and public relations practitioners) should take note of Luntz’s small-scale research, which endorses the best practice model.


2 Responses to "“PR” and communication with voters"

It’s odd that political communications experts seem to think that they can feed the public any old twaddle and get away with it as long as it looks a bit like a popular TV programme.

It makes no sense to equate the things that really matter to people – security, money, their health, their job – with how they like to be entertained. In any pub in the country, round about 10 pm, you can hear folk talking with great seriousness and considerable knowledge about these very subjects. I believe that’s how people prefer their political leaders to speak to them, and the Guardian piece seems to prove the point.

To paraphrase David Ogilvy: ‘The voter isn’t a moron – it’s you!’

The problem really is that political communication and campaign strategists use what I call a magpie approach. If it looks like it will work they use it, so political communication starts to look more and more like advertising, corporate PR or popular culture. What they fail to ask themsleves is – is this right for politics! There is no political model for PR, marketing etc, only the tools of the discipline bolted on to politics. Using a few metaphors it seems that sometimes the bolts are crossthreaded, the nuts dont fit quite right or they have the wrong size spanner.

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