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Clowning about: Political stunts and lessons for communicators

In any sector or industry, one of the greatest challenges is earning the right to be heard.  For most companies, if you’re not able to generate headlines, you will struggle to demonstrate your expertise to prospective clients. 

This summer, some of the UK’s political parties have faced the same challenge, attempting to get their central messages in front of the general public.  On inspection, there are lessons for all of us communicators.

Playing the clown?

As the fourth biggest party (by MPs) in a political system dominated by the big two of the Conservatives and Labour, it can be pretty hard to get yourself heard if you are a Liberal Democrat.  As a result, party-leader, Sir Ed Davey, has looked to alternative methods to make the headlines.

Just a month ago, Ed Davey kicked off his party’s electoral campaign by paddleboarding in Lake Windermere, since then he’s: ridden a slip and slide in Somerset, attempted (and spectacularly failed) to run a water obstacle course in Warwickshire, gone wheelbarrow racing in Yeovil and ridden a rollercoaster at Thorpe Park after unveiling the party manifesto.

This isn’t because of Ed Davey’s natural instincts for high octane sports (although he does seem to be enjoying himself), but is driven by serious political tactics to direct attention to the Lib Dems.

Indeed, for a policy initially mocked by commentators, it certainly seems to have worked, with newspapers in the first days of the election campaign dominated by pictures of Ed Davey seemingly having a whale of a time – and getting the party higher up the news bulletins in the process.

The use of grand political stunts is nothing new, however, though it certainly isn’t without its risks.  Who can forget the infamous “EdStone” unveiled by Ed Miliband, as Labour leader, in May 2015.  Unveiled five days before polling day, the two-tonne limestone slab was intended to highlight the party’s six “unbreakable” election promises – yet within hours, it’s earnestness was eviscerated online and in the media.

Another lover of the grand stunt was Boris Johnson.  As mayor he celebrated Team GB’s first gold medal at the London Olympics by riding a zipwire at East London’s Victoria Park (before famously getting stuck halfway).  Going into the 2019 election, Boris again used stunts to drive home his message – using a union-jack-adorned JCB, plastered with “GET BREXIT DONE” on the bucket, to smash through a wall labelled “Gridlock”. 

Predictably, it stole all the headlines.

What businesses and communicators can learn from the differing reactions to these stunts:

Campaigns can be fun and still communicate big ideas

While throwing yourself into Lake Windermere might not scream of policies quite as loudly as Boris’ digger, it was nonetheless effectively used as an opportunity to talk about the Lib Dem policy on cleaning up Britain’s rivers (only days before, the headlines were covering sewage being illegally pumped into the Lake.)

So, in your next campaign, don’t be afraid that a light-hearted campaign won’t be able to deliver a serious message.  The two are compatible when handled by experts.  

Self-deprecation and humour can break down walls, while misplaced earnestness can be punished

Most politicians would have run a mile from a zipwire stunt, yet Boris Johnson threw himself into it, adorned with a helmet and two Union Jack flags.  And rather than being seen as a gaffe of career-ending-proportions – as he swung, stuck, for 10 minutes – Boris only saw his popularity soar.

Compare this to Labour’s launch of the EdStone, where messaging revolved around the desire to be taken seriously and seen as a party committed to its promises.  The lack of any humour and misplaced earnestness saw the stone become the source of near universal ridicule and the party was duly punished.

In business, just as in social settings, people relate to people who can laugh at themselves – so in delivering a campaign which is designed to be humorous, make sure to throw yourself in full tilt, as half-heartedness will be quickly exposed.

Consistency is key

Just as in politics, to be guaranteed to be seen by your target audience, you need a campaign that provides a constant stream of coverage.  Large announcements that give you a large splash for a week are great, but these need to be supplemented by the day-to-day PR work that will keep you in the media week after week. 

With just a day to go until the country goes to the polls, we don’t have long to wait to find out the fate of the parties and their electoral strategies.  One thing is for sure, there is plenty of time for more stunts!

If you want to draw attention to yourself for all the right reasons, why not get in touch with Clear B2B – email Rachel Arquati (r.arquati@clearb2b.com) for more information.

 

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