The election starting gun has not yet been fired, but the race is already on. Political manifestos have been launched, posters have been plastered across billboards and journalists have been summoned to impromptu press conferences. At the same time, the main parties are gearing up for the first 'internet election' in the UK with blogs, emails, tweets, viral videos and Facebook updates.
Yet one key weapon of political communications remains stashed away in the campaign locker, to be unleashed only once Gordon Brown has officially called the election. Since 1947, the party political broadcast (PPB) has been part of the communications mix in election campaigns, giving politicians the chance to talk directly to floating voters - and sometimes to dramatically shape news coverage. But with a multitude of political communications tools now available to the modern politician, what role will PPBs play in the 2010 election?
Among senior politicians, the jury is out over the effectiveness of the election broadcast. Hanover Communications recently teamed up with the BFI to produce a short film marking 75 years of the PPB.
In the film, former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine (now chairman of Haymarket Group, the owner of PRWeek) appears sceptical about the power of the TV ad to win over voters. 'They create strong reactions among one's own supporters,' says Heseltine. 'But I doubt they change people's minds.' However, former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock is more optimistic, crediting a 1987 broadcast - dubbed 'Kinnock The Movie' - with boosting his personal ratings and ensuring Labour came 'second and not third' in that year's contest.
Ivor Gaber, professor of political journalism at City University, says election broadcasts often preach to the converted: 'People pay much more attention to party political broadcasts from parties they support than from parties they don't, because people like to see things that confirm their own prejudices or opinions.
Essentially, party political broadcasts don't aim to convert opposition supporters. Instead, they aim to shore up their base and try to make their potential voters into actual votes and weaken the resolve of wavering opposition supporters.'
Risk of backlash
The most effective broadcasts are those that tap into a prevailing national mood. Gaber cites the Conservative Party's 1992 'tax bombshell' broadcast, which ramped up fears about Labour's tax and spend plans: 'If it catches the zeitgeist it's effective; it can boost all other paid-for advertising and media coverage,' says Gaber.
Yet the PPB also has the potential to backfire spectacularly, as witnessed most clearly by Labour in the same 1992 election campaign. Within hours of airing its 'Jennifer's Ear' broadcast, the party was hit by claims it had exploited a child's suffering for personal gain, and later on by doubts over the veracity of the story. The negative coverage dominated the headlines for days afterwards. 'Jennifer's Ear reflected less of a debate about the health service, but more about Labour's competence and trustworthiness,' recalls Gaber.
But Hanover MD Charles Lewington says despite the growth of new media, PPBs can still be a highly effective form of political communications: 'At the end of the day, the most effective way of reaching the broadest audience is through TV. For all our enthusiasm for all things new, it is the most effective way of reaching a large audience.' Meanwhile, new forms of media can be used to successfully amplify the effect of a PPB - provided it is well-executed in the first place. 'If you want your PPB to be viewed heavily on YouTube, you need good production values,' advises Lewington.
Exploitation of rivals
For political parties, the PPB is undoubtedly a double-edged sword that must be treated with extreme care. Lewington, a former press chief for the Conservative Party, says all parties will attempt to exploit their rivals' broadcasts: 'One of the objectives of a campaign team would be to try to turn a party broadcast against the party that made it.' And for most political journalists, this is the only point at which the PPB becomes newsworthy.
George Pascoe-Watson spent four years as political editor of The Sun, before moving to lobbying firm Portland late last year. He says of PPBs: 'They are not pre-screened to lobby journalists and they tend to go out at 10pm, around the news time. So clearly not even the parties themselves are targeting political journalists. The only time they get any newspaper coverage is if, within them, there is a disastrous story for the party that's putting them on. It's the backfire moment.'
Pascoe-Watson says it is the potential for the broadcasts to backfire that means parties should handle them with kid gloves: 'The most important thing is to research properly and make sure the actors and actresses you're using don't have stories that can backfire on you.
'You have to ensure the messages you're portraying through the images and the script are entirely consistent with not only your policy aims and your stated policy, but with the way leaders and other top figures live their lives. What you put out is a reflection of how you will behave in government.'
As the 2010 election approaches, PRWeek asked three political communications experts to sketch out their vision of a PPB for each of the main parties. Labour is advised to run a humorous attack on David Cameron and friends, while the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are urged to stand on positive platforms.
Whichever approach the parties finally take, journalists - and bloggers - will be ready. 'Stories are to be found where there are genuine conflicts with the politicians themselves and their lives,' warns Pascoe-Watson. 'That's where the pitfalls lie. And there are many potential pitfalls.'
- How could the main parties use party political broadcasts in the 2010 election?
LABOUR: Using Harry Enfield character could convince the public to take a dim view of the Tories
Jon McLeod, Public affairs chairman, Weber Shandwick
From a purely impartial perspective, there is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Labour Party to use Harry Enfield's character, Tim Nice But Dim, to warn people of the perils of putting the country in the hands of someone with no real political experience and who is not in touch with the real needs and aspirations of hard-working British families. Most people don't watch PPBs because they are boring and not funny. This would be watchable and watched, and an instant viral hit:
The scene is the senior common room at Eton. Tim is dressed in top hat and 'Pop' waistcoat ...
Tim Hello chums. Y'know Eton's produced some great PMs over the years ... er, not sure of their names, but they'd make a bally good rugger squad.
Cut to Oxford, dreaming spires, Tim in Bullingdon Club garb ...
Tim Oxford's a bloody good place too, and the Bollinger Club is full of bloody nice blokes. Er, Dave Cameron was in it and the Lord Mayor of London, old Bozzo, although Dave hates him.
Cut to wobbly Westminster studio, Tim straight to camera ...
Tim Listen folks, we bally well need a change. As my friend Ho-bama says, hope for a future of change we can really, sort of, get into, blogging, twittering and online stuff. Yo!
Believe me. Dave Cameron is a bloody nice bloke. He's a mate. Loves rowing, hunting and drinking clubs. Let's put him in Number 10 - for Britain's sake. And remember ... omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est.
Closing to screen saying Vote Labour, voiceover of Tim saying 'Isn't that the wrong party?'
CONSERVATIVE: Avoid raking up Labour's mess and focus on issues affecting family life in Britain
Malcolm Gooderham, Managing director, TLG
David Cameron has called for a new type of politics. This should be reflected throughout the campaign and in the PPBs. To focus on attacking Gordon Brown and his record would be a mistake.
Voters know the Government has made a mess of things - they don't need reminding. As well as resisting pressure to run negative ads, Cameron should ignore siren voices saying he needs to show the depth of talent on the front bench. Why? Leaders personify parties.
Tory PPBs should focus on selling the leader and his agenda for rebuilding Britain's economy and society.
Cameron must articulate what 'change' looks like: he needs to give voters a reason to turn out for his candidates. Key is to convince voters that he represents a real, not phoney, change agenda. At every opportunity, he needs to remind voters how he will do things differently. In short, Cameron should use the PPB to sell change through positive messaging about the Conservative proposition, such as:
'My party has undergone some significant changes, we're not perfect, but as a party I feel we share and represent the values, ambitions and the frustrations of hard-working families across the country. So, by voting Conservative, you'll be voting for a party that understands the anxieties and aspirations of family life in Britain today. My vision and determination to take tough decisions upfront - to mend the damage done to the economy and society - will bring benefits and hope for hardworking families and pensioners in years to come. It is time for decisive leadership. And time to rebuild faith in our parliament and politicians.'
LIBERAL DEMOCRAT: Clegg must go on the attack and give a reality check to voters
Olly Kendall, Head of PR, Insight Public Affairs
With limited ad spend, the Lib Dems need to capitalise on this free prime-time opportunity.
Content should be provocative, enabling the party to trail and market PPBs, to generate wider news interest and attract higher audiences on TV, and subsequently online. Fronting the campaign (and unprecedented exposure in the three leaders' debates) will give Nick Clegg adequate opportunity to shine. PPBs provide a chance to remind voters of the party's other big hitters. Policy should focus on just two or three core messages. The party will shoot a number of PPBs. Here's what could they look like:
On the Attack The economy is where the election will be won and lost. I would like to see an 'attack' PPB - in which Lib Dems show 'then and now' footage of Brown and Osborne, contrasted with more recent speeches. Let's remind people how wrong the 'other two' got it.
Helping 'You' Lib Dem policies will benefit 'ordinary' people - so we must remind them that only a Lib Dem government truly has their interests at heart. Deploy plenty of visuals for viewers to quickly identify with - the family struggling with their mortgage, the pensioner who can barely afford to heat their house etc. Contrast with the Tories' outrageous inheritance tax policy and Labour's abolition of the 10p tax rate.
Reality Check Clegg and Vince Cable should front a PPB demonstrating they are prepared to be tough, pragmatic and realistic. Clegg needs to banish the earnest persona - getting tough on the economy is only believable if you sound tough: 'Obama talked about "yes we can". That was 2008. Today, we live in a different world. The politics of 2010 is "we must" ...'