Iain Bundred, EMEA Managing Director of Corporate PR for Ogilvy, ex-communications adviser to the Labour Party in the last three elections, and Chief Political Spokesperson to the Prime Minister in 2010, wrote in The Times about media and politics.
There comes a time in every modern election campaign when the meaningless phrase “hermetically-sealed” starts appearing in news stories.
As examples of journalese go, this is perhaps the worst. Yet, three weeks into a boring election that no one really wanted, we are deluged by process stories of whether the Conservative and Labour campaigns are trying to keep their principals away from media scrutiny.
As the guy who (wrongly) told my then boss, Gordon Brown, that the Sky News sound engineer had promised us that they would definitely not use whatever it was he said after meeting Gillian Duffy, I’ve got a bit of sympathy for Teresa May’s spinners.
Every moment of the carefully orchestrated campaign, you are at risk of losing “the narrative” to a random act of media madness. What’s more, there are 20-30 journalists on a bus with you who are willing you to do just that.
During the last three general elections, my various roles for the Labour Party mostly involved playing this game of cat-and-mouse with political correspondents. My job, as I saw it, was to get across the best our candidate had to offer, while avoiding any cheers on that press bus – to borrow from a famous American elections truism, we had to feed the pack every day or else they would eat us.
Before you dismiss that as the evils of spin, I urge every reader to ask themselves what they would do if they were advising the prime minister right now. Would you play it safe – strong and stable, even – by limiting media access, prompting headlines about being “in hiding” but getting your carefully crafted message-of-the-day through on the TV news bulletins of the day?
Or would you instead open the door to any and every question, as Tim Farron did recently, and find that the only time you get on TV is when you’re harangued by a voter?
The even harder question is, which route brings out the personality of your candidate best?
Having stood at the door of a Crouch End coffee shop while Ed Miliband and a local journalist chatted for 45 minutes, in order to avoid a “doorstep” by Michael Crick, I can tell you that “playing it safe” is more complicated than it seems.
On that occasion, the Ham & High got everything it wanted – a video interview, a background briefing, an on-the-record chat – anything that would keep a local paper happy, while also playing for time to avoid a tricky set of questions from a national broadcaster.
This time around, from supporting the rise of the Alt Left bubble to the refusal to engage in a risky TV debate, the two major parties are not playing by the media’s rules. This week, the ever-investigative Crick has even claimed that No 10 are pre-vetting questions (a claim that most journalists on the Conservative press bus have refuted and, even if they hadn’t, I find unlikely). It puts the spotlight once again on the question of media access.
These “safe” campaign decisions hurt TV ratings and newspaper circulation, further complicating the military-industrial complex at the heart of modern political communications. So journalists have both a professional and financial incentive to chase politicians who they feel are dodging tough questions.
Yet, for those desperately seeking your vote, it actually doesn’t help to avoid media scrutiny. Given the growing chasm between the establishment and everyone else, leaders often try to by-pass the “lobby” of political hacks in order to make an emotional connection directly. The best way to earn trust is to show your authentic self – that’s why the only serious broadcast interview Teresa May has done this week is with her husband on The One Show.
Therefore, campaign teams are disproportionately sensitive to every small — often seemingly insignificant — article that claims you are control freaks hiding away your principal. They know that every restrictive step they take to control the view of their leader serves only to undermine their authenticity.
That’s why most readers will have wanted to avoid all this spin and advise Mrs May to throw off the shackles of campaign managers. Perhaps, as a taster of the real Theresa, that feisty campaigner who loves being “unscripted”, you would have urged her to let the cameras see her out knocking on voters’ doors, right? Oh dear.
For as long as media and politicians approach a political campaign with fundamentally opposing objectives, I fear the “hermetic seal” is here to stay.