This elec­tion is about who con­trols the news agenda

With six weeks to go un­til polling day, all par­ties will seek to cre­ate mo­men­tum via dis­tinc­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tions

Campaign UK - - PROMOTION - By Giles Ken­ning­ham

It was Bill Clin­ton who fa­mously said: “You need to own the fu­ture.”

Love him or loathe him, that’s what Don­ald Trump did dur­ing the US pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. His slo­gan of “Make Amer­ica great again” was an em­pow­er­ing, for­ward-look­ing phrase that en­er­gised the elec­torate. By con­trast, Hil­lary Clin­ton’s more an­o­dyne “Stronger to­gether” mes­sage failed to cap­ture the pub­lic’s imag­i­na­tion and did not paint a vi­sion for the fu­ture.

The chal­lenge for all po­lit­i­cal par­ties in the up­com­ing UK elec­tion will be how you en­gage a pub­lic who would be for­given for suf­fer­ing from an acute bout of po­lit­i­cal fa­tigue with their third vote in three years.

The Con­ser­va­tives have al­ready drawn their bat­tle lines. They want to frame this elec­tion around the themes of sta­bil­ity, lead­er­ship, the econ­omy and a plan for Brexit. In a nut­shell, con­ti­nu­ity with change. We are in a dif­fer­ent world now, but ex­pect to see some sim­i­lar­i­ties with the 2015 elec­tion.

Labour are in dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory. They are still try­ing to find their voice and a dis­tinc­tive mes­sage. They risk be­ing de­fined by the Con­ser­va­tives – some­thing that is very hard to re­cover from. And a di­vided pol­icy on Brexit risks de­rail­ing their cam­paign.

The Lib Dems are in rel­a­tively good shape. They have po­si­tioned them­selves as the anti-brexit party and are well-placed to pick up on any an­tibrexit sen­ti­ment in the coun­try. With lim­ited re­sources, they may fo­cus on a hand­ful of seats.

With a new leader, Ukip are, to some ex­tent, an un­known quan­tity. But the Con­ser­va­tives have shot their fox with Brexit. The chal­lenge is how they can carve out a dis­tinc­tive mes­sage and con­vey a sense of pur­pose.

In nor­mal cir­cum­stances, you know when a vote is com­ing well in ad­vance and plan ac­cord­ingly. This snap elec­tion – which, to the credit of Theresa May’s team, was kept se­cret – caught ev­ery­one on the hoof. With six weeks un­til polling day, ev­ery­thing will move at break­neck speed.

Elec­tions are all about a sense of mo­men­tum and dis­rup­tion. And it’s now a race against the clock as each party seeks to find the quick­est route to vot­ers.

The speed and sur­prise of this elec­tion means ev­ery­one will be scram­bling to get their in­fra­struc­tures in place. The par­ties only have a mat­ter of weeks – rather than the usual six to 12 months – to get can­di­dates in place, leaflets printed and ac­tivists on the ground mo­bilised. Against these time con­straints, on­line ad­ver­tis­ing, in­fo­graph­ics and videos will be­come key in reach­ing tar­get vot­ers quickly. The par­ties won’t have had time to build up huge war chests to spend on lav­ish bill­boards – dig­i­tal me­dia of­fers a cheaper and ef­fec­tive way of hit­ting the ground run­ning.

On­line me­dia also gives the par­ties op­por­tu­ni­ties to dis­rupt their op­po­nents. Dur­ing the 2015 cam­paign, we al­ways sought to dump sto­ries dam­ag­ing to our op­po­nents in the mid­dle of the day to dis­rupt the rhythm and cy­cles of their care­fully chore­ographed sched­ules. On the day Labour an­nounced a flag­ship pol­icy to crack down on non-doms, a savvy Tory re­searcher un­cov­ered an old video clip of Ed Balls di­rectly con­tra­dict­ing the pol­icy. Within min­utes, the sound­bite went vi­ral.

The 2015 cam­paign was a text­book ex­am­ple of the power of on­line ad­ver­tis­ing and dig­i­tal. But po­lit­i­cal posters made a come­back, mak­ing an im­pact on­line and in the me­dia as well as on the bill­board. They were not the be-all and end-all but they played a key role in re­in­forc­ing a cen­tral mes­sage of the Con­ser­va­tives’ cam­paign.

The pic­tures of Ed Miliband in the pocket of Alex Sal­mond and Ni­cola Stur­geon be­came an en­dur­ing im­age dur­ing the elec­tion, used again and again by news­pa­pers and broad­cast­ers. The im­agery only worked be­cause it re­in­forced a cred­i­ble cen­tral mes­sage of the cam­paign – that Labour couldn’t form a gov­ern­ment with­out be­ing propped up by the Scot­tish Na­tional Party.

The chal­lenge will be how you get your story heard in a news cy­cle that will be mov­ing quicker and quicker. If you have too many mes­sages, you will get lost. Dur­ing the 2015 vote, much to my sur­prise, we found that one story a day was enough. Dur­ing the Brexit cam­paign, sto­ries lasted three hours. It’s get­ting harder and harder to con­trol the news agenda and leave a lon­glast­ing foot­print. As ever, rep­e­ti­tion of mes­sage will be key.

Of course, none of this mat­ters if you don’t have the trust of the vot­ers. This elec­tion comes down to: who do you trust with your fu­ture and se­cu­rity in an un­cer­tain world? Con­sis­tency and sim­plic­ity of mes­sag­ing will come into sharper fo­cus more than ever dur­ing a short cam­paign.

For the Con­ser­va­tives, end­less spec­u­la­tion about a land­slide vic­tory could prove dan­ger­ous. If peo­ple think the party is go­ing to romp home in the polls, they ei­ther won’t vote or they may use the op­por­tu­nity to reg­is­ter a protest vote. So the Con­ser­va­tives need to el­e­vate and main­tain the risk of a Jeremy Cor­byn gov­ern­ment. They need to find a clever way of en­er­gis­ing vot­ers over the next few weeks.

If the past year has taught us any­thing, it’s that po­lit­i­cal cer­tain­ties and con­ven­tions have been thrown out the win­dow.

Giles Ken­ning­ham is a for­mer head of press at No10 and spokesman for prime min­is­ter David Cameron. He is a founder of PR con­sul­tancy Trafal­gar Strat­egy

“The Con­ser­va­tives want to frame this elec­tion around the themes of sta­bil­ity, lead­er­ship, the econ­omy and a plan for Brexit”

Labour: ‘They risk be­ing de­fined by the Con­ser­va­tives – some­thing that is very hard to re­cover from’

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