What makes a good political stunt?

George Galloway’s appearance on Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother is the latest in a long tradition of PR stunts attempted by politicians. David Quainton asks why they bother, and picks the good from the bad.

When Respect MP George Galloway entered the Big Brother house it was a clear attempt to appeal to a demographic politicians are finding increasingly difficult to reach. At the last general election, only 45 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds went to the polls, and it is this disaffection with politics that Galloway claims he is trying to redress.

But commentators have questioned the wisdom of his decision, accusing him of abandoning his Bethnal Green and Bow constituents – missing, notably, a Commons debate on the Crossrail project, and his monthly surgery.

Galloway's BB antics represent the latest in a long line of PR stunts deployed by politicians to engage with the masses. Not all are abject failures: in fact, high-risk strategies can reap rewards. The problem for Galloway, however, is that he had little control within the BB house.

'Most Big Brother conversation is moronic,' says former Conservative Central Office director of media Nick Wood. 'George didn't realise that. It's the wrong way for a politician to show a more human face.'

Control is key
The most successful populist PR stunts tend to be better orchestrated .'All sides must be signed up,' says The Times political correspondent Andrew Pierce. 'When Tony Blair bought Gordon Brown an ice cream last year both sides were well briefed, so the
image worked.'

Pierce cites the family photo of then Tory minister David Mellor – taken after allegations of an affair – as a counter-example: 'His father-in-law didn't want to be there and said so. It was a catastrophe.'

In all cases politicians are looking for an iconic image that resonates with press and public alike. 'Dry policy needs visual cues,' says Portland PR founder and ex-Number 10 aide Tim Allan. 'Journalists demand pictures.'

In 1995, Blair's 'head tennis' with Kevin Keegan engaged a younger
audience. And last week he washed graffiti from a wall – an image complementary to his 'respect' campaign.

Politicians suffer when they lack orchestration. Claire Short was widely derided for donning a Princess Diana-esque suit while shifting landmines on a beach. Even Blair was criticised when he stepped out of Number 10 clasping a mug picturing his family, after the birth of his son Leo.

'It was a great example that politicians should never be allowed to think for themselves,' says Pierce.

But this was a rare slip for Blair. 'He has the presence to pull off most stunts,' says Media Strategy MD and ex-John Major press secretary Charles Lewington. 'Some just don't have that ability. We had a long debate about a John Major visit to Russia because he didn't look good in a hat,' he recalls.

Hats in general are to be avoided, Lewington argues. William Hague's trip down a theme park flume wearing a 'Hague' baseball cap was mocked by all – with the exception of his former nanny (who said it helped keep the sun off his balding scalp).

Image reversal
However, even the most derided politician can redeem himself through a good stunt. Hague gained public support with a turn hosting the BBC's Have I Got News For You. The trick was repeated by Charles Kennedy.

It worked for both men because the show's writers have the ability to make presenters' remarks seem off-the-cuff. This, it seems, is vital to any stunt.

'The public are savvy. They see through the obvious,' says Evening Standard political editor Joe Murphy. 'If they think it's a cynical ploy the image is shattered.'

Consequently, the public's dislike of political stunt has prompted New Labour's recent attempts to shake off its spin tag. As Murphy points out: 'Stunts can get a political strategy noticed –but a stunt is no replacement for a political strategy.'

Hits and misses: ten influential political stunts 

1.  Tony Blair – football 'head tennis' with Kevin Keegan : HIT
In 1995 Blair's prolonged game of head tennis with Kevin Keegan portrayed a sporty man of the people. One of Alastair Campbell's finest moments.

2. William Hague – baseball cap: MISS
Hague's baseball-cap-sporting ride down a theme-park log flume in 1997 ranks among the most widely derided PR stunts of all time. It marked the low point of Hague and press secretary Amanda Platell's attempt to give the Tories a makeover.

3 Margaret Thatcher – on the Challenger tank: HIT
Arguably the iconic picture of Thatcher's reign came at a 1986 photocall in West Germany. Aboard a Challenger tank sporting goggles and scarf, the image reinforced her status as the Iron Lady.

4 Michael Portillo – when Portillo became a single mum: HIT
Beaten by IDS in the Tory leadership election and returned to the back benches, Portillo's popularity was at a nadir in 2003. He took the brave step of replacing a single mum living on benefits in Liverpool for a TV show. It completely reversed Portillo's uncaring image.

5 Neil Kinnock –  on the beach: MISS
After being elected Labour leader in 1983 Kinnock took a stroll along Brighton beach with wife Glenys. He tripped, fell in the sea, and blamed it on the tide coming in. Spitting Image used the footage on its opening credits for the next decade.

6 George Galloway – Big Brother: MISS
After only two days inside the BB house, Galloway lamented a lack of intelligent discussion or platform for him to express his views. The consistently negative publicity will be even more galling.

7 Harold Wilson –  with The Beatles: HIT
Wilson's 1964 photo with The Beatles after a Variety Club Awards ceremony led to an ongoing relationship and popularity boost. Things soured when John Lennon
returned his OBE in 1969 in protest at the government's support of the Vietnam war.

8 Edward Heath – the conductor: MISS
Early in his premiership in 1971, Heath took some time out to conduct Elgar's Cockaigne Overture at the Royal Festival Hall. Rather than connecting with the new PM, voters wondered how he found the time when there was a country to run.

9 David Cameron – pushbike: HIT
When Cameron was photographed on a pushbike in the run-up to his crowning as Tory leader, it portrayed a fit and green future for the party.

10 Gordon Brown – ice cream: HIT         
With media crowing about a Brown/Blair rift leading up to the 2005 election, an image of unity was needed. Blair buying an ice cream for the Chancellor provided the picture – and a rare Brown foray into the world of stunts.

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