Political messaging: there will be not one general election, but 650 local ones

One of Labour's leading advisers recently did an audit of the plans for digital campaigning and, after a full presentation, still wasn't satisfied. When asked why, they replied: 'The strategy can't be the right one - I've never seen one of our ads.'

Think you know how this is going to pan out? Then think again, writes John McTernan
Think you know how this is going to pan out? Then think again, writes John McTernan

Patient Labour staff explained that was the point: targeting isn’t broadcasting, it’s microcasting.

The question wasn’t entirely a stupid one, it was just a perspective from the past.

Political campaigning used to have a significant morale-boosting role – the messages members and activists saw gave them confidence.

The 2019 general election will be played under new rules, so what – apart from digital targeting – should we PR professionals be looking out for?

First, not only will messaging be hyper-targeted, it will be hyper-local.

It’s a commonplace that the elections in the four nations of the UK have been increasingly different since devolution.

In this election, different regions will vary widely because of the new identities created by the referendum – the Leave-leaning North will have a different campaign from Remain-favouring London and the South East.

In addition to these new identities, there will be a multiplicity of parties – not just the Conservative Party and Labour, but also the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party, the Greens and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists and the many independents, formerly members of the two main parties.

In many ways, there will be not one national general election, but up to 650 separate local ones.

Second, because of this local variation, the national 'horse-race' opinion polls will not be as useful a guide to the eventual result.

It's not just that the polls narrow as election day approaches.

It is also the fact that to get accurate readings of what is going to happen at a constituency level, much more sophisticated – and therefore expensive – research methods need to be used.

In 2017, only one pollster – YouGov – called the result correctly, and it did that because it used the statistical technique known as MRP (Multilevel Regression with Post-stratification). Look for MRP polls if you are after greater accuracy.

Third, this will be the WhatsApp election.

While security agencies agonise about the need to end encryption of smartphone messages, successful campaigns are exploiting the intimacy of the messaging app.

Mobile-phone numbers are relatively easy to harvest, and the apparent intimacy of the groups - never bigger than 256 - makes the messages shared within them more persuasive.

While recovering after a vicious stabbing during the election campaign, Jair Bolsonaro successfully campaigned from his hospital bed using WhatsApp - and is now President of Brazil.

Finally, to coin a phrase – the first casualties of elections are facts.

For all the effort that traditional media put into fact checking, it just won’t matter. It’s not that voters don’t understand the truth – they just don’t care about it.

Political professionals – particularly policy wonks – love their plans. But a five-point plan for the economy doesn’t beat a four-point one.

What matters is resonance, emotion, and authenticity. Criticism of President Trump often fails to understand this.

His opponents question his grasp on facts, his supporters lap up the rhetoric – they take him seriously, his critics take him literally.

Fasten your safety belts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

John McTernan is a senior adviser at BCW Global and a former adviser to Tony Blair

Thumbnail credit: Leon Neal/Peter Summers/Chris J Ratcliffe/NurPhoto/Getty Images

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