Politics, PR and the art of the image

Good PRs know that communication isn’t just about words.  Sometimes it’s not about the words at all.  It’s about getting the images right,  plugging into the visual cues audiences respond to, even if they’re not consciously aware of them (see the supreme example of Barack Obama’s Imperial entrance to Parliament  last year).   It’s corny but still true that a picture’s worth a 1,000 words. In that context, yesterday’s Nick Clegg/David Cameron re-dedication on their second anniversary was an extraordinary piece of PR.  And not in a good way.

I’m not talking about the political content of the event (although I wonder how someone who is having their Disability Living Allowance cut might respond to hearing “what you call austerity, I might call efficiency” from Cameron.)

But ignore the content, for the  moment.  Just look at the pictures.  This could be used as a training exercise for how not to do it.  So for their handlers’ future reference, here are some tips:

1.  Don’t show the talent with its back to the audience.

A slightly unfair criticism – they’re standing in a circle of people, so inevitably some people are behind them.  But the fixed camera position – and Cam/Clegg’s relentless focus towards the lens – means that the TV pictures show them apparently ignoring the people in the room.  The audience seems to be just there as set dressing, not a good look for people commonly portrayed as being out of touch with working people.  A more informal setting would have worked better, allowing Cam/Clegg to interact with people in the room without awkwardly spinning round – at tables in the canteen perhaps, if you’re determined to do it in a factory setting.

2.  Mix up the audience

The audience is almost exclusively white and male. The two woman you can clearly see are placed so that they are visible behind Dave and Nick when they speak, somehow emphasising that they’re different.  The pictures should reflect the diversity of the population.  We’re all paying for it, after all.  It’s not a useful image for a government accused of causing record levels of unemployment among young black men, and women to be seen addressing themselves almost exclusively to white men.

3.  Avoid the impression of Toffs lecturing the Workers

Again, slightly unfair – Cam/Clegg go to work every day in suits, you could argue it’s a uniform just as much as the factory workers’ overalls are.  Sending them along in anything else would be hugely patronising.  But the image of two expensively be-suited men standing in front of a passive crowd in overalls has a whiff of the Young Mr Graces about it.  The impression isn’t helped by the artificiality of the set up – a less formal atmosphere might have avoided the sense of the young masters coming down to talk to the hired help.  I wonder if Cameron felt this at the time and that’s why he took his jacket off?

4. It’s meant to be a conversation not a speech

Interaction with the audience seemed very limited.  It would have felt less like a staged PPB and more like a proper event if they had mixed up where the questions came from, so Cam/Clegg had to talk to different parts of the crowd, and had the confidence to actually ANSWER THE QUESTION without reverting to pre-prepared speeches.  No wonder members of the audience don’t look interested in what’s going on (I wonder how much choice they had in being there?)

and finally,

5. Have  a good reason for doing the event in the first place

I’m still puzzled why this was done at all.  It looked like a slightly panicky response to bad local election results. There were no new announcements (and so close to the Queen’s Speech there couldn’t have been).  A re-affirmation of their determination to stick it out together just draws attention to the possibility that they won’t.  Successful partners – in business or marriage – don’t keep banging on about how well they’re getting on, they just get on with doing stuff.  As celeb watchers the world over know, public declarations of devotion are usually followed by acrimonious splits.

It’s cotton, by the way, the second anniversary. In case you were thinking of getting them a gift.  It’s apparently traditional to give towels.  Useful for mopping up messes.

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