UK elections foreshadow the future for communicators

What communications lessons can the rest of the world learn from the British general election of May 6th, which has delivered the UK's first coalition government since the Second World War?

What communications lessons can the rest of the world learn from the British general election of May 6th, which has delivered the UK's first coalition government since the Second World War?

The short answer is that, in the post-crisis world all conventional wisdom is being turned upside down. Business leaders and brands need to take heed just as much as politicians.

Here are four ways in which the old rules are being rewritten:

1. “Professional” campaigning has diminishing returns. Like in the US, Brits are used to elections becoming more and more “professional.” The messages are more researched and finely crafted than ever before, the advertising slicker and precisely targeted. Yet the UK election has shown that voters are now more resistant than ever to big campaign messages and themes. The only time voters really paid attention to party advertising was when clever bloggers like ‘mydavidcameron.com' gave people the chance to create their own hilarious ‘mash-ups' or spoofs and post them Twitter.

2. Stage managing is out; authenticity is in. The Brits have also tried to follow Americans in managing public appearances so that very little is left to chance. The “real” voters who turned up to see public appearances by party leaders were, in fact, activists. As a result, politicians are totally unprepared to meet “real” people— and suffer accordingly. Gordon Brown's election campaign effectively ended the day he insulted an elderly woman who just wanted to talk. And it will haunt him on YouTube forever!

3. No more “change.” Barack Obama wrung just about every ounce out of “change” as a campaign theme, and any politician who tries to copy him needs to offer more. It is embarrassing that both Conservative and Liberal parties lifted wholesale the entire Obama “change” sales pitch. It didn't work (even though they “won”). In a post-crisis world, voters want to know exactly what you are going to do about massive debts, bankers' bonuses, higher unemployment, etc.

4. TV is making a comeback. In this digital age, it is easy to forget about the box in the corner of the room. In the UK, we all marvelled at Obama's “internet election.” But the British election in 2010 proved The Economist's recent verdict that television is “media's great survivor.” The three TV debates featuring the party leaders had more impact on the election outcome than anyone predicted—perhaps because of the blizzard of messages and wildly divergent opinions emanating from other media, they were our only chance to experience our candidates through a relatively unfiltered lens.  I watched them all in high definition, and could see the individual beads of sweat on each leader's forehead. It made a difference!

Geoff Beattie is the leader of Cohn & Wolfe's Global Corporate Practice, and ran (unsuccessfully) for local office during the recent British elections.

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