Category Archives: Public Sector Communications

Young people and politics – not just a photo op

School delegation for If campaign

School delegation for If campaign

Yesterday this group of young people went to Downing Street to meet the Prime Minister. as part of the Oxfam “enough food for everyone”, If campaign.  When they got there they were kept waiting without explanation, not given the time to put their (pre-submitted, vetted and approved) questions to the PM and herded about by some aggressive PR handlers who really wanted to get the picture op over and done with. The questions were fielded instead by actor David Walliams who was there too – and handled the whole thing with aplomb, apparently.

I know this because my daughter was part of the delegation.  Her opinion of Mr Cameron – admittedly not high to start off with – has dropped a few more notches. Her cynicism about politicians has been reinforced.  I really hope that Oxfam got some pictures they can use – it’s a great cause.  Equally,  I really hope that No 10 don’t ever trot these images out as an example of successful engagement with young people.  I’m sure David Cameron has many, many important things to do in his day. Finding time to meet young people interested enough in the state of the world to get involved in a campaign like this should be one of them.  I’m equally sure that whenever these guys are old enough to vote they won’t have forgotten the way they were treated when they went to Downing Street.


Digital by default – mind the generation gap.

I recommend everyone,  from comms strategists and policy wonks to the merely socially curious,  take a look here  for a fascinating overview of British social attitudes in 2012, compiled by Ipsos Mori.

The research was presented at the Government Communications Network  last week and generated a flurry of startling factoids on Twitter – like this one:

more children between the ages of 2 and 5 can use a smartphone than can tie their own shoelaces.

There’s a mass of useful information for planners in the report.  I’ve  gathered together some of the insights revealed during the debate which highlight some important trends and generational differences:

  • On average each UK household owns 3 different types of Internet-enabled devices
  • For the 1st time, over half (52%) of all calls are made via mobile phones
  • Big differences in methods of communications: 16-24s heavily text reliant. Over 65s opposite, voice-based
  • 1/3 of 16-24 year olds live in a mobile-only home. More than double UK average of 15%
  • 8/10 people in UK have Internet access. Figure drops for over 55s
  • Implication is of increased polarisation between young and old. Rise of the smart phone. Texting as a mass medium.  TV remains strong. Young people are switching off the radio. Post is still v important to older people
  • BT and Virgin’s superfast broadband services were available to around 60% of homes by March 2012

It’s clear  that a broad mass of people of all ages are perfectly comfortable in an online world and have multiple means of accessing it.  The generational divide isn’t as clear cut as you might think – here are some more statistics, from the Forster Company’s overview of age in the UK:

  • 47% of 55 – 75 year olds connect to their friends with either Skype or instant messenger services
  • 45% of 55 – 75 year olds spend up to 30 hours on the internet a week
  • 33% of over 55s use social networks
  • The fastest growing group of Facebook users is aged 50+

We’re not all digital natives yet

But it’s  also  clear that while many of the over 55s are fine online,  a significant minority aren’t – yet.  That’s an important issue for policy-makers.  Time will eventually iron out the difference until everyone left standing is a digital native , but we’re not there yet.  This makes the government’s strategy of making public service delivery “digital by default” by 2015 look slightly optimistic.

If people have to access the services they need online, what happens to those (currently 20%+ of the over 55s, according to the Ipsos Mori research)  who don’t have internet access?

If people over the age of 65 are more comfortable with having a conversation than dealing in “text-based communication”, how easy will they find negotiating an online application form for vital services like pensions or social care?

The recent story about the shortcomings of the helpline for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections didn’t inspire confidence:

[A whistleblower]  who is working at an Electoral Commission call centre dealing with queries about the election, told the Guardian that he spoke to hundreds of older people every day who could not access the information online. They were referred to a “very temperamental automated phoneline” at the Home Office, and then were only given a list of names and no real information”

And how long will it take before superfast broadband is available everywhere so that online applications can be done speedily even in remote rural areas?

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.

Tory PPB – Smart #PR or cynical stunt?

The Tories abandoned the usual Party Political broadcast format this evening,  in favour of an appeal from a range of Ministers and others on behalf of the East African famine crisis.  Twitter’s response so far has been mixed – from Jon Gaunt castigating them for “using dying kids to get votes” to others describing it as “decidedly different” and “random” – there will no doubt be a more varied response if it’s repeated after the news at 10, when the politicos settle down with their cocoa and get ready to luxuriate in Newsnight.  I’ll look out for the debate.

With much relief I can reveal that I disagree with Gaunty.

Personally I think it might be the most interesting piece of political PR the Tories have done in a long time, as well as a pragmatic response to a difficult content issue.

What would have been the point of  a standard pitch for votes when the nearest election where those votes might be useful is far over the horizon?   And what could they say about policy and politics which doesn’t raise the spectres of the many, many problems the electorate are currently facing and drag down the public mood?  So why not try something to position the Tories as caring and generous and concerned with bigger issues than petty politics?  Why not use it as an opportunity to humanise the party a bit – getting away from the notion that they’re just posh, white men in suits –  and let them send themselves up a bit?  Why not stress the party’s commitment to international aid – a rare example of policy that appeals to people from beyond the traditional Tory vote?  Oh, and in the process, why not try to raise some money for an extremely good cause?

They’ve obviously decided that the risks – that people will see it as exploiting human tragedy or a way of ducking out of a conversation about domestic politics – are worth taking.  It’s not been a great week for the Tories’ PR machine what with the cat flap, and the hasty re-write of the Leader’s speech – but this is an intriguing note to end on.   Smart PR, cynical stunt, generous gesture or all three?

Who the hell’s doing the Tories’ PR?

Having spent last night watching Hackney burning on TV and listening to police sirens screaming past on the road outside, I appreciate that there are more important issues at stake than David Cameron’s PR.  But, this blog is supposed to be about communications, so what the hell:

Who on earth is in charge of Tory PR?  And why did they not have the PM on a plane back from Tuscany immediately after the first night of rioting in London?

For once I have some sympathy for the politicians –  what on earth do we expect them to do when they get back?  As Shaun Bailey put it on Newsnight :

 “This is the thing that the media have been most childish about.  Do you think that David Cameron’s going to go down there with a shield and deal with the kids in Tottenham and then run over to Hackney?  We have a mechanism.  This is a big sophisticated society.  The police are here … we have leaders.  We have a Deputy Prime Minister, a Deputy Mayor, we have all manner of people.  The point is this, they are not the people who will put this problem right.  This problem is in our communities and in our economy.  What are our young people going to do for a job?  … We have lost control of our young people and that is our responsibility not politicians’ “

But whether there’s a practical need for them to be here or not, the image projected by the absence of senior ministers is poisonous to the Tories because it suggests that either:

  • they have no idea what to do and are hiding from the cameras so that they don’t reveal this to an anxious public;   or
  • they don’t want to get into a row – about cuts to police and youth services, or about soaring youth unemployment, or about how (if?) the clean-up will be paid for;    or
  • they simply don’t care – poor communities destroying themselves in unfashionable parts of London don’t matter enough to interrupt a holiday.

I think it’s the last one that’s the one that’s most damaging.   Cameron, Boris, Osborne, privately educated, Bullingdon-clubbers and multi-millionaires to a man, they already look startingly out of touch with “real people”.  It’s all too easy to imagine that they couldn’t care less about what happens on Mare Street.

Cameron cares about his image – that’s why he was  so sensitive to criticism for not tipping a waitress that he went back to find her.  But his priorities are badly wrong.  He should have been  here, striding purposefully about in Tottenham, talking to residents with a furrowed brow, sympathising with distraught shop-keepers and homeowners and promising that help is on its way.

Of course he’s back now, but it’s too late. In PR terms the damage is done.  The mood music is clear – they don’t care, they don’t act, we’re all in this together at the mercy of the mob,  they’re enjoying holidays in expensive private villas.  They’re the nasty party again.  Little by little the brand is being re-toxified.


The 1948 show – a bloomin’ bit of all right

I love everything about this 1948 COI film about the NHS.  The message – of course – but the look and the music too.  As a piece of animation it’s  energetic and engaging – quite right that it’s introduced by the COI equivalent of the MGM lion, and carries its own music, design and director credits.

It’s packed with social detail about class and family.  Watch the high street shops that Charley cycles past, for example. Charley’s doll-faced missus sits happily darning his sock while he eats his dinner and only gets animated when she has to rescue the baby from the coal-scuttle and give him a (tin) bath.  The voiceover is Mr Cholmondeley-Warner at his most patronising, but the film is clear and informative and, at 8′ 37, much longer than a modern attention span would be deemed able to cope with.  (In those pre-TV days it must have been intended for cinema screening, so I guess had a captive audience.)

Compare and contrast with this, government communications fans…

Same approach – animation with voiceover, illustrating illness by animating what’s happening inside a body –  but no-one with an accent like that would have got anywhere near a film studio in 1948, unless they were going to sweep it.  Accents aside, I really prefer the old one  – which may be just the charm and strangeness lent by its age.  Charley’s insides samba to a sassy beat and magical medicines hover around his bed.  Change 4 Life’s faceless plasticine blobs just get gunged up with internal cotton wool and expire early on their faceless high street.  It’s just as patronising in its own way, too.

I’d be intrigued to see what an equivalent film introducing Andrew Lansley’s new model of the NHS would look like.  What would clinician led commissioning, Foundation Trusts and a new role for Monitor look like?   Could it be done in less than 8 minutes?  Would Charley and his missus think it was still a bit of all right?