Public Affairs: Does politics need influencers?

In fact, aren't politicians really just professional influencers themselves?

Anderson: 'There is an increasing use of influencers around specific issue campaigns that is paying off' (pic credit: Elyse Marks)
Anderson: 'There is an increasing use of influencers around specific issue campaigns that is paying off' (pic credit: Elyse Marks)

This summer I’ve been watching Robert Harris’ wonderful Imperium: The Cicero Plays on stage in London. Marcus Tulius Cicero was the ultimate influencer – for much of his career he used his ‘personal brand’ to give the Roman ‘thumbs up/down’ to a whole number of causes and people.

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It seems that influencers have wanted to be involved in politics forever. But how much good does it do?

Politicians always hope some of the stardust might rub off on them. Harold Wilson loved inviting the Beatles to Number 10. Maggie entertained Coronation Street legend Bill Roache, as well as Jimmy Savile (let’s move on). Blair hob-nobbed with Blur and Oasis and Cameron basked in the glow of Britain’s 2012 Olympic heroes. But I don’t think anyone is changing their political allegiances as a result of celebrity or influencer endorsement.

There is an increasing use of influencers around specific issue campaigns that is paying off, however. A powerful example in the digital era was the Ghurka Justice campaign. It wanted the Ghurkas who fought for the UK to have the same rights of abode as their British and Commonwealth comrades. The Labour government had refused to change policy and the campaign stalled. Then it enlisted the support of ‘national treasure’ Joanna Lumley, whose father served in the Ghurka Rifles.

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Gaining support from the Royal Family, Lumley led a (political) charge on Downing Street and later ambushed the then-immigration minister in a public press conference where the nation witnessed the government change direction live on air.

Another woman – the late Princess of Wales – had an outsized influence on global affairs. Her campaigns on land mines and attitudes towards HIV/AIDS changed minds and policies. Her sons followed her lead as influencers on those issues and have teamed up in the UK to improve awareness of mental health, resulting in some degree of political awakening on the issue.

Of course influencers waded into the #IndyRef and #Brexit debates. JK Rowling, for instance, became a useful distraction for the Better Together campaign – attracting such bile and hatred online as to become a news story in itself. And while Gary Lineker may not have made many Brexiteer friends lately, the Leicester hero can look back with some satisfaction that his city was one of the few places to back Remain in the Midlands.

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There are, increasingly, also great examples of influencers bringing politicians together to hear about important day-to-day issues. Santander, for example, is currently working with former Strictly head judge Len Goodman to raise awareness of financial scamming of the over-60s. Towards recess I bumped into the Santander team in the Palace of Westminster mobbed by MPs all looking to have their picture taken with Len.

So, influencers in political campaigns are not new; they won’t work for every campaign and do little to change party politics or single-issue referendums. But find yourself a trusted national treasure and they can change hearts and minds on the simple stuff that just makes life a little better for all of us.

Iain Anderson is executive chairman of Cicero Group

Thumbnail image via @YouTube

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