The art of the political stunt - and why Tories avoid Champagne moments

In carefully choreographed election campaigns the media are crying out for the political stunts that add colour to their pieces. The trick for political parties is how to provide that colour while still reinforcing a central message of your campaign.

#edstone began trending on Twitter after Ed Milliband unveiled his 'manifesto stone' (┬ęStefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images)
#edstone began trending on Twitter after Ed Milliband unveiled his 'manifesto stone' (┬ęStefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images)

In 2015, that was relatively straightforward for the Conservative campaign.

Whenever we found out where Ed Miliband was giving a big speech or on a visit, a cry of "activate the shoal of Salmonds" would go out in CCHQ.

Also see: David Cameron's former PR man Giles Kenningham forms new agency Trafalgar Strategy

The team then sent an army of activists with Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon masks to goad the Labour leader, hammering home our central message that Ed Miliband couldn’t form a government without being propped up by the SNP.

It allowed us to kill two birds with one stone - disrupt our opponent, and provide great pictures for the TV bulletins.

In 2007 when Gordon Brown avoided calling an election, we pushed the crude but effective narrative of ‘bottler brown’ with an army of activists dressed as bottles of beer outside Downing Street. The pictures made the evening news bulletins.

It may all sound very simplistic and glib, but these stunts worked because there was a central message and fundamental truth behind them.

But there is a thin line between success and failure.

When in 2015, days before the vote, Ed Miliband unveiled an 8ft stone with 10 manifesto pledges carved into it, we sat back and gawped in Conservative campaign headquarters. The hashtag #edstone began trending on Twitter. You couldn’t move for memes.

We sat back and let it carry the news cycle. In a race where Ed Miliband wanted to be portrayed as serious and statesman like, he destroyed it with a pointless stunt.

Equally, The Lib Dem yellow box budget in 2015 used by their then Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander smacked of desperation and undermined a serious office.

Similarly, political visits and crafting good pictures of your leader can be a huge headache.

When I worked in Number 10, visits always moved at breakneck speed, so there was less chance of you being hijacked by protestors. We would always have the PM’s car nearby when we did the choreographed doorstep TV clip, so there was an obvious way out for him.

Five words no press or events officer wanted to hear on any visit was "the Mirror chicken is here" – bad pictures can haunt you much more than going off message.

The infamous Ed Miliband bacon sandwich snap haunted him during his time as political leader.

With David Cameron we had pretty much got to a point where we banned him being eating food when the media were present.

A pint of beer was acceptable, but there was always a mandatory ban on Conservatives being photographed drinking Champagne. That would be a gift to our opponents, allowing them to paint us as out of touch.

With the advent of camera phones, the law of probabilities suggests that at some point in the not too distant future a politician or adviser is going to be caught on an iPhone saying or doing something distinctly off message and potentially career ending.

But at the end of the day, any election campaign wouldn’t be the same without Michael Crick doorstepping a politician when they are trapped in a corner or the Mirror Chicken gate-crashing events disrupting the best laid plans.

Ultimately if we want more people to trust our democracy we need the highest levels of transparency. Long live Michael Crick and the Mirror chicken; elections would be a poorer place without them.

Giles Kenningham is the founder of Trafalgar Strategy and former head of political press for David Cameron

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