Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Anatomy of a Greentastrophe - the defining comms moment of the 2015 General Election

What was your defining moment of the 2015 General Election?

The #edstone?
The whole "Ed Miliband the power-crazed back-stabbing womanising-traitor" thing?
The David Cameron remembering how "pumped up" he was about whatever it was he was talking about that day thing?

As we look back, 3 or so months after the event, these are all memorable things among many others that made for a faintly hilarious election campaign. And I think we can all reflect on and be thankful of it for a very generous amount of ridiculous / bizarre / inept / downright stupid moments.

Thanks politicians. Your ridiculousness is indeed inspiring.

But for me, as a comms bod, the defining moment came actually way before May - back in February, when the Green Party did their manifesto... sorry not their manifesto launch, but their campaign launch. Which as everyone knows are two COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THINGS.

Don't remember this? 

Allow me to remind you. Yes. That. 

The toe-curling, soul-crushing horror of it all.

Just for context, you might remember that before this the Greens were doing actually pretty well for a tiny party. Depending on which poll you read, they were there-or-there-abouts level pegging with the Lib Dems (remember them?), and had enjoyed a massive rise in membership, that took them above UKIP in members - the somewhat optimistically named #greensurge.

As it looked like the UK was inevitably heading towards another hung parliament (how wrong we were), there was a genuine belief that the Greens could be genuinely influential in some kind of post-election confidence and supply arrangement with Labour.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint) Wednesday 24th February 2015 effectively blew all that off course with the most stupifyingly inept day of media appearances in modern political history.

Looking back on a day that everything that could've gone wrong, literally did go wrong, it's easy for us to laugh, cringe or chew our fists from a safe distance.

But as comms people - especially comms people in the public sector - I think many of us were probably watching the sheer unending unfolding media cataclysm that day with a very clear sense of "there but for the grace of God go I".

So, now we've drawn breath from May and are safely coming to terms with a new political reality, I think it's time that, whatever your political viewpoint, we put them aside and reflect on what we as communications people, can learn from this historic Green Catastrophe - or Greentastrophe if you will.

I believe there's five key lessons:

1. Know your whys, your whats, AND your hows

Up to the election, the Greens did focus on the “why” quite well in their messaging. Whatever your view, “for the common good” is a nice simple phrase that encapsulates what they’re all about. 

They weren't bad at the “what” either. More investment in wind energy here, half a million new social houses there. All ideas that sound quite exciting. 

However, they quite obviously sucked at the “how” – and this is what caused Natalie Bennett's infamous brain freeze on national radio. 

This shows that all three elements of the messaging holy trinity (how, what, why) have to be clear and instantly graspable. So the next time you’re briefing your chief exec, or putting a campaign together, make sure you have all these bases covered. Two out of three, clearly is bad in this situation.

2. Know when it’s time to retire a cliché

“Hope is triumphing over fear”. 

Don't get me wrong, the Greens are by no means alone in their liberal (note: small "l") use of incredibly vague platitudes. See the current equally hilarious Labour leadership context for evidence of that.

But everyone, seriously, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since Obama 2008. 

Unless you have the type of charisma (like Obama) to make these unquantifiable abstract nouns sound anywhere near inspirational - just, stop using them.

3. Your best speakers might not be your best administrators

You’ve got to give Natalie Bennett some credit. She presided over a massive (in relative terms) surge in popularity and membership of the party up to the election, and under her leadership forced their way into the mainstream (and into the prime time leadership debates - with limited success). So she’s obviously a good and successful strategist.

With the best will in the world however: a “great communicator” she ain’t.

Poor Natters had just suffered that horrific interview on LBC then, as if it couldn’t get any worse  up pops Green MEP and Baroness Jenny Jones to, with the best of intentions I’m sure; totally humiliate her at their comically awful press launch

Lesson here: get your best speakers up , whoever they are.  Make sure they're impeccably briefed, and know how to keep their cool under pressure.

Whatever someone’s profile, role, or talent, if they can’t put a message across, or are a liability with a microphone, leave ‘em at home.

4. Do it once, and get it right.

Thinking of having a “launch” of some kind? Not quite got all the details in place yet? Then, for the love of Great Odin’s Raven, DON’T DO IT YET!

If you find yourself saying to anyone: “of course, this isn’t the actual launch, that’s next month once we’ve actually figured out what it is we’re launching,” then please do everyone a favour, and abandon ship before it gets embarrassing. 

There’s nothing to be gained in rushing something out when it’s not ready to stand up to any kind of scrutiny. Or to be more specific, there’s no point in a campaign launch if you’ve not yet sure what exactly you’re campaigning for (like, oh I don’t know, a manifesto maybe?)

Take your time, and get it right. 

Do it once, and make it memorable….for the right reasons.

5. Keep it real, but know your audience

In the aftermath of the Greentastrophe, a lot of people (well, left wing people I follow on Twitter and are friends with on Facebook - ever the accurate arbiters of public opinion)  commended Natalie Bennett on her LBC performance by saying how it showed she was a real human being, and not a robotic politician in the vein of David Camerobot 3000 or Ed Milibandnet.com4.0. 

And you know what? There might be something to that.

Authenticity is a very rare commodity in politics and in public life in general, so if you’ve got it, or whoever you're thinking of putting up before the public has it, absolutely flaunt it.

But with that, undeniably comes a health warning. Understand where and when you’re flaunting it.

I remember listening in to the Today programme that day where Natalie Bennet explained to Justin Webb that in order to come to a peaceful settlement in Ukraine Britain should ensure that Vladimir Putin would "have to walk away with something" and that "realistic concessions" should be made.

Now, look. We're all grown ups. We know that this stuff happens behind closed doors in embassies across the world every day. No diplomatic solution has ever come about through one side entirely capitulating to the other. So if you really look at this, she's probably strictly correct, and in a conversation round a water cooler in the Foreign Office, this kind of thing is probably not too shocking an idea.

But on national radio, this kind of talk is tantamount to heresy. And when talking to an audience made up of people still having nightmares from seeing Threads in 1984, this was probably not the wisest move.

She was honest, yes - but maybe a bit too honest given her audience.

So the lesson is, authenticity is a good thing. But knowing your audience is an even better thing...

Let’s all please make some good come from this day-long, and achingly slow car-crash of a national media event, well, until the next one inevitably comes along. Which it will.

And let’s never talk of it again…

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