UKIP's 'Black Death' comment: PR gold?

Though no longer employed by UKIP as their head of communications, I still provide consultancy to the party.

You say 'Black Death' I say PR gold, says Gawain Towler
You say 'Black Death' I say PR gold, says Gawain Towler

And so I was on call over the Council elections of the other week. You know the one; where nobody gained, nobody lost, the parties were left at 35 per cent each with a little shift here, a little shift there, but no comprehensive narrative.

The country wasn’t thrilled with them at all. And UKIP was having its worst night for five years.

Then imagine waking to a plethora of calls having pulled a PR all-nighter.

You know the sort; regular nocturnal internal updates, fighting a spirited social media battle and delivering a few individualised media briefings at 4.30am.

The last thing you knew was that your general secretary Paul Oakley, an articulate barrister no less and safe pair of hands, was going to appear on the Today Programme to defend a disaster.

You give him the 7.30am briefing and, confident he is no plank, slip into the arms of Morpheus.

Half an hour later the phone rattles like a Gatling gun.

Groggy and baffled, you screen the calls for a moment and Oakley phones through.

"I described the party as the Black Death when talking to Nick Robinson".

That might explain the fusillade.

But it was a work of genius, and entirely and deftly communicated the message that the party was trying to get over.

Despite losing 123 out of 126 seats the message that needed to get out was that, though bloodied and bowed, next year could produce a wildly different result.

And as long as we stay on the pitch we maintain an existential threat to the main parties.

I rolled off the sofa and looked at Twitter - Black Death and UKIP were both trending above the other parties and above 'local elections' and continued to do so through the day.

What was apparent was that the Westminster Bubble was utterly taken aback that anybody could describe themselves in such a way.

One priceless comment from Jim Pickard at the FT was this:

"We need a metaphor."
"Syphilis?"
"No one likes syphilis."
"Piles?"
"No one likes piles."
"Bilharzia?"
"No one likes bilharzia."
"I've got it, Black Death, we're like the Black Death."
"That's more like it."

What we had managed to do was maintain our reputation for straight talking, even about ourselves.

We had blown the sheer scale of our disaster away in a gale of laughter, nobody was talking about the numbers, just the comment.

The key message was maintained. Though ripe, the analogy was clear.

Though damaged, the party could well rebound and act as the democratic disruptor that it has so successfully been over the past few years.

Mission accomplished. It’ll be the only thing anybody actually remembers from the local elections.

Gawain Towler is founder of CWC Strategy and the former head of comms for UKIP

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