May failed to connect as social media came into its own: PR chiefs dissect UK election

After an evening of drama, PR experts discuss where the General Election was won and lost, the lessons for comms and campaigning - and the impact of the new political landscape on our industry.

May held onto her own seat but was 'badly advised' across the campaign (image via Twitter)
May held onto her own seat but was 'badly advised' across the campaign (image via Twitter)

Theresa May's former communications director Katie Perrior, who resigned from her role when the snap election was called in April, said this morning that Theresa May was "badly advised" during the campaign.

"It was a really bad night for the Conservative Party," she told ITV News. "If you look at the Tory campaign and the mistakes, especially the u-turn on social care, it doesn’t leave a good impression. Theresa May will be sore today.

"The messages about Theresa May were not working well, so the party brought out Amber Rudd, Boris Johnson and David Davis to help spread the offer around, but it was too little, too late.

"It’s not gone well, not right, but she has a sense of responsibility and public duty. The Conservative Party is her life, she works for the party but she won’t walk away. I really felt for her, she was badly advised."

She also spoke to ITV’s GMB programme earlier this morning, saying: "The communications have been pretty awful."

Below, PRWeek rounds up the views of other political comms experts:

Giles Kenningham, founder of Trafalgar Strategy and former head of political press under David Cameron's premiership

"Consistency and simplicity is key"

Where was the general election campaign won and lost? The manifestos played a huge part in this election. Labour’s manifesto contained populist policies and created a sense of momentum behind their campaign. And the fact it was leaked early actually gave them several days of uninterrupted press coverage focussed on these policies. In contrast, the Conservatives manifesto contained no flagship polices for activists to sell on the doorstep and of course contained the ill-fated social care policy. More damaging than the policy itself was the u-turn that followed days after. Following on so closely from the National Insurance budget u-turn, it put shot to the central message of the Conservatives campaign: strong and stable leadership. And crucially, as the Conservatives left their manifesto uncosted, it put them in a very weak position to attack Labour polices as not adding up.

What are the lessons for political comms and campaigning? Consistency and simplicity is key. Without it you have no authenticity. Theresa May’s u–turn on social care undermined her core message of "strong and stable". Calling a snap election ironically cost the party a majority. They didn’t have the infrastructure in place and that was reflected in the campaign over the past seven weeks. Crucially, Theresa May failed to emotionally connect with voters and that matters. The greater her exposure to the public the less they liked her. Social media has come into its own during this election and looks to have played a key role in engaging and mobilising young people to go the polls.

What impact (if any) will the new administration have on public affairs and political campaigning? A hung parliament and Brexit gives an unprecedented opportunity for business to lobby and shape the debate. There is still a blank canvas when it comes down to what will happen next. Big and smalls firms can play a huge role in shaping and framing the future business environment. Interest groups who have the agility to move quickly and form coalitions could have huge influence.

Naomi Harris, MD, Public Affairs, Newington

"Saying words over and over again simply isn’t enough"

Where was the campaign won and lost? The winner of this general election campaign is not the party with the most seats, but the party that defied expectations. The Labour Party won the battle by setting out a positive vision of the future that young people have been especially drawn to, having known nothing but the politics of austerity. Theresa May lost on many fronts – her reasoning for calling the election sounded hollow/cynical to voters, her manifesto had holes in it that were seized on by her opponents, her u-turn looked like an abdication of responsibility, and her reluctance to debate looked like a weakness in leadership.

What are the lessons for political comms and campaigning? Saying words over and over again simply isn’t enough. To be believed you need to back up everything you say with evidence, either of a track record or of credible intent, and whatever you do, do not try to personify something you are not, as the public will see through it. While Corbyn’s track record is doubtful to say the least, he felt authentic to those he was trying to connect with because he stuck to his principles.

What impact (if any) will the new administration have on public affairs and political campaigning? There will be a huge impact. Even if May stays on as PM and the Conservatives form a minority Government on a confidence and supply basis with the DUP, this will be far from business as usual. The messiness of parliament will make it even more important to build alliances across party lines and to understand where the potential areas or agreement and disagreement will be.

Andy Sawford, ex-Labour MP for Corbyn and now managing partner at Connect Communications

"People respond better to positivity and optimism"

Where was the campaign won and lost? There were three big factors: leaders, policies and Brexit fallout. Theresa May crumbled and Jeremy Corbyn exceeded expectations. The Tory policy on social care was a disaster, while Labour's tilt to the left resonated with many, particularly younger voters. There were some aftershocks from the Brexit vote, with Labour's gains mostly in seats that voted Remain.

What are the lessons for political comms and campaigning? The Conservatives started with a huge lead, as Remain did in the EU Referendum, and they lost support during the campaign because it was relentlessly negative and uninspiring. There is a clear lesson for comms that people respond better to positivity and optimism.

What impact (if any) will the new administration have on public affairs and political campaigning? The hung Parliament means an increased role for effective public affairs to help clients build strong relationships with MPs across all parties and contribute to policy development at a time when whoever forms the government will have to work hard to win every vote in Parliament, and will have to focus on policies that command broad support.

Naheed Mehta, senior adviser on international affairs, Edelman, whose civil service comms career included working in Number 10 with Major and Blair

"Don’t make it just an individual campaign"

Mehta said the Conservative campaign was the biggest factor in the result: "I think Theresa May lost the election - it was hers to win, and she lost it. I think she ran her campaign as a constituency MP rather than as a sitting PM. It was all about her with a small coterie of people around her, but where were the other big-name party members around her?"

Mehta also said that the manifesto and subsequent u-turn on dementia tax was a "complete unmitigated disaster", but did have praise for one Conservative politician. "I think it’s worth pointing out that Ruth Davidson has done really well for the Tories in Scotland - she has held off another Scottish independence referendum and she deserves credit for that," she said.

She also praised Corbyn’s successful mobilisation of the youth vote, saying: "Everyone was very sceptical of that young vote - but he got them out."

Of lessons learnt for future political campaign, she said: "Don’t make it just an individual campaign - a party is more than one person. And her [May’s] constant repetition of a few phrases just made her look weak."

Metha said: "Hung parliaments are always extremely tricky. The last coalition worked relatively well - although it didn’t work for the Lib Dems, so I think big parties would be reluctant to join a coalition now. From a business point of view, uncertainty is always a dangerous thing - you need to have a government that can get on with things, especially with the security situation and the Brexit talks."

James Acheson-Gray, MD, APCO Worldwide in the UK

"'Strong and stable' became a bit of a joke"

Where was the campaign won and lost? Calling a General Election at this stage in the Brexit negotiations was always going to be a high-risk strategy and unfortunately that risk has not paid off. The genuine anger felt by many young people over the Brexit vote has undoubtedly had a huge impact on the result and it is clear the campaign failed to reach that demographic effectively. It is also becoming increasingly obvious that the polls over the past few weeks were far more accurate than predicted and so I’m sure there will be questions asked about why those polls were dismissed so confidently and the strategy was not adjusted to reflect them.

What are the lessons for political comms and campaigning? It was a mistake of Theresa May not to participate in the debates, which showed a lack of confidence, particularly when the campaign was built entirely around her. As a message, 'strong and stable' became a bit of a joke: the public wanted leadership and spark rather than bland control campaigning. And this is exactly what Ruth Davidson delivered; her success in bringing the Tories back from the political wilderness in Scotland (and saving May’s bacon in the process) is partly based on her sounding like a human being and not being afraid to show a sense of humour and real personality.

What impact (if any) will the new administration have on public affairs and political campaigning? Unlike Labour, which had promised to repeal the Lobbying Act and introduce a tougher statutory register of lobbyists, the Conservatives do not see further industry regulation as an area of priority, certainly not after last night; they have bigger fish to fry. While the industry must continue to scrutinise its own activity and exercise rigorous self-governance, there is little appetite from the Tories to hold a magnifying glass over public affairs engagement, should they form a coalition government with the DUP or operate as a minority government. Like all things, policy and mood is dictated by events. Notwithstanding another lobbying scandal, it’s as we were for the sector; but that is reliant on the outcome of who forms a government.

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