Tuesday, 19 May 2015

What’s the point; are you meeting the challenge?

In a classic episode of ‘Yes Minister’ - is there another kind of episode (?) - Sir Humphrey is talking about the Minister and how he likes to panic; “Ministers need activity Bernard, it’s their substitute for achievement”.

This phenomena is not limited to Jim Hacker and Humphrey’s Whitehall. I have seen it so often in organisations in the public and private sectors. The need to be seen to do stuff - any stuff - as a mark of busyness or success.

It is often the lot of communications people to deal with such demands from their CEOs or Boards. How often I have heard people - often very senior and experienced people - say to their comms team 'I want us to host an event'. I want to send out a leaflet or flyer. I want us to be in the local paper every week. I want to send out a newsletter/eBulletin to our key contacts. The need is often expressed with such force, such certainty and urgency, that it starts to get immediately actioned. The seniority of these requestors - they are often instructing not requesting - helps get the ball moving quickly - with the comms team swinging into action.

The comms plan gets written, the draft materials start to get produced, designs are mocked-up, lists of attendees are put together, QA groups are established and other work is reprioritised to make room for this key new piece of work before anyone asks the question; what is the point?

What is the purpose? What are we hoping to achieve? Why are we doing this?

An old boss of mine used to often quote the mantra ‘form follows function, follows purpose'. In other words let’s be clear why we are doing something - what is its purpose/why does it exist- before we start designing and delivering. How often this simple rule of thumb is ignored, often with disastrous effects - loss of time, money, staff morale, the missing of other deadlines etc.

Where does this leave the comms team? Comms people walk a fine line between being seen as the nae-sayers who are barriers to change and progress and performing a vital challenge function in organisations to check that what is being done is linked to some overall business objective, the strategy of the organisation or the long term aspirations it has. But for it to succeed and be the best comms team it can be it must challenge.

This is not a pious post. I have not always done this or if I have I have accepted quickly that sometimes resistance is futile and delivered the said roadshow, letter, flyer etc but tried to do it with the minimum of impact on other stuff. I capture this discussion here to acknowledge one of the key roles that good comms people can play - it is never wrong to check that what is being done is necessary or whether there is a better way of doing it to achieve the stated purpose - assuming it has one.

The best leaders listen to the challenge and can have their minds changed. An example. 'I want to hold an event or series of events to engage (insert the name of a group of key stakeholders)' - it could be clients of a professional services business. If the purpose is to improve relationships or perceptions of the organisation than perhaps an event(s) is not the best way of doing it. It could be by making better, more targeted use of social media, hosting virtual/online events such as Twitter chats to discuss key issues/share ideas or just having more focused discussions with these key audiences, that the goal is delivered.

It is the role of the comms team to help find the best way of achieving the organisation's goals; of bringing together message, audience and tactics without assuming that an event (in this case) is the right answer. Challenging is a vital role to play but challenge with a focus on helping solve the problem not creating a new one. Constructive challenge with ideas and suggestions. Always rolling up the sleeves to get the job done.

I am yet to regret asking the question 'why are we doing this/what are we hoping to achieve?'. I always regret it when I don’t ask.

Monday, 11 May 2015

#GE2015 result; message, audience and tactics

It’s over. No more opinion polls. No more TV debates or non-debate TV debates. No more excruciating photo opportunities involving selfies, non-voting celebrities, baby-kissing or high-fiving small children. No more hi-viz jackets or stone masonry.

No more general election action for another five years - Fixed Term Parliament Act and events, events permitting. No more blog posts from me on this election - except for this one!

The press, TV and blogosphere are packed full of views on why the results happened and why the polls were so wrong. There are some common themes that run through the analysis about ’shy Tories’, the political earthquake in Scotland, the collapse of Lib Dem support and so on. It is hard to find something unique to say or an interesting way of saying it but I’ve had a go in sharing my thoughts.

I have looked at the outcome of the election (not every party's outcome before I get hate mail from UKIP or Green voters!) by looking at three key things that make up good communications - message, audience and tactics.

On message………..(what)
There are three aspects to message when it comes to politics- is it clear, do people respond to it, does it come together as a story; is there a narrative?

The two big winners of the election - the Tories and SNP - had a clear message - repeated over and over in words of one syllable. They were consistent. They were clear. They also had a message that the people they were targetting were open to hearing. Labour had some slogans and some repeatable rhetoric but overall it fell short of being a coherent narrative. Ed Miliband had started to talk about 'One Nation' and used that as an organising idea before the campaign but it was missing from the last few weeks and we were left with a series of individual policies and ideas - often expressed in the negative (i.e. we are getting rid of something or against something like non-doms or zero-hours contracts) but not an overall story as to what their vision was for the future. Labour also seemed to define themselves as being worth voting for because they were not the Tories - this only has limited appeal in England and as the result proved none in Scotland as hardly anyone thought about voting Tory there anyway!

The two biggest issues at the election - as at most elections - were economic competence and leadership. Labour allowed the Tories to make all the running on defining their economic record - ’the mess we inherited’ - and Ed Miliband as weak and easy to push around by the SNP. Whether either of these things is true or not they became the message, the story, that everyone heard without Labour having a strong enough and oft-enough repeated response.

The Tories message was all about their long term economic plan and finishing the job they had started. The SNP’s was about a strong voice for Scotland. Easy to remember and easy to hang all subsequent policies announcements and statements off. On the downside, there was some language used by the SNP - and others, including the Lib Dems that falls into the category of language only used by politicians or political commentators; ‘progressive’. This language switches people off. It is jargon. It alienates.

The Lib Dems had a message but the people did not want to hear it. No matter how clear or coherent it was, no-one was listening. It is the great irony of election campaigns - many people don’t make their final decision until very late - often just before polling day - but to have a convincing story to tell you need to have been telling it for some time - way before the election. The Lib Dems never recovered from their tutiton fees problem - although that was as much as failure of message as of policy for me - and that drowned out everything else they said during the campaign.

On audience………..(who)
The next key aspect is who are the parties trying to convince - who is their audience. This sounds a silly question - surely they want to try to get everyone’s vote but not so. Labour famously had a 35% core vote strategy and then built their messaging and campaign around delivering that - speaking about those at the top (millionaires, bankers, no-doms and those at the bottom of the income ladder (people using food banks, on zero hours contracts etc) but saying very little about those in the middle. They focused on getting Labour’s core support to the polls. It worked for the most part - except in Scotland. I would argue that like the Tories - as Michael Howard proved with a very similar strategy in 2005 - the core vote of both main parties is around 30% not 35% - the remaining 5-10% that vote for them come from floating voters, the centre ground or from parties where they had voted to express a protest.

Labour failed to reach out to the millions who voted in their huge numbers for Tony Blair’s New Labour. That sounds like they tried and failed but I’m not sure they did - they just didn’t bother. They thought that given the electorate maths and their assumption - a very, very bad one which unravelled in the last year - that they would keep most/enough of their Scottish seats - this would be enough to deliver them enough seats to form a coalition with others to keep the Tories out.

It’s not hard to see who the SNP targeted. It was pretty easy for them to follow a map but they did also try - and not really succeed in reassuring English voters that they were no threat to England - a fear that the Tories used to their advantage. The Lib Dems focused their efforts on a small number of target seats - seats they held - a defensive approach designed to help them limit the damage of the expected loss of support following the unpopularity of their decision to join the coalition and then be held responsible for all its worse policies. Their problem was not the audience strategy but again that the audience wasn’t listening.

The Tories for their part had their own 35% strategy, trying to convince some of their former voters who had gone to UKIP to come back with the promise of a referendum on Europe and focused on core Tory ground of lower taxes, squeezing welfare and supporting pensioners. But the key difference to Labour was that they also had a further 10% strategy - targeting - pretty ruthlessly - their coalition partners' seats - not just during the campaign but way before by busing activities to Twickenham, Yeovil and the like. It paid off. As did their relentless targeting of English voters who had concerns about the power the SNP could yield over a dependent Labour minority government. It wasn’t always pretty but it was hugely effective. In audience terms, the Tories fought on a number of fronts and as result they spread their risk and their reward.

On tactics…………(how)
Having a message and being clear who your targetting those messages at is one thing but you then need to execute - you need to do stuff.

As we are so tired of hearing, elections in the UK are now very presidential and follow the American model. That means the party leaders play a hugely important role as the person most likely to be doing stuff - the stuff we see on our nightly news - meeting people, speaking at events, being interviewed by key journalists etc. In this election we saw very little of anyone from the major parties outside of the leaders - except the Chancellor, who wasn’t hard to spot in his hi-viz jacket! That meant their personal appeal, their individual credibility and their ability to look Prime Ministerial (in the case of Messrs Miliband and Cameron) really mattered. This is one question were the polls were spot on - with the Tory leader being streets ahead of Labour’s top dog consistently and comfortably throughout the campaign.

There is no doubt that Ed Miliband was a weakness for Labour and therefore their many tactics failed as he often fronted them, including the excruciating carving of pledges in stone. By the way, Labour were destined to lose (i.e. not win a majority) the day they picked him as their leader. David Cameron was once the best thing going for the Tory party but that changed in recent years with some of the gloss coming off him. He was having a very average campaign until the fire was lit in his belly and he become 'pumped up' PM. This was a turning point in the campaign and came at the time when most normal people (i.e. not like me glued to politics 24/7/265) started to pay attention to the campaign.

The rest of the tactics were the usual stuff - very little difference between the parties - all doing the same old, same old. Walk about in town centres, events with supporters waving flags or placards disguised as real people, factories and large machinery as backdrops to make them seem connected with 'hard working people' etc etc. All very tedious and all very predictable. But as the were all doing it no-one lost out and no-one took advantage in their use of innovation here, except perhaps the Tories who made more consistent and I think better use of social media marketing.

In conclusion………..
As professional golfers say, ‘you can’t win the tournament on Thursday but you can lose it”. The same is true of elections. They are not won before the campaign is officially launched and the ballot papers sent out but you can lose it there. In the four or five years before the election the parties and leaders need to start to build their narrative, start to change perceptions of them (as needed) and start to answer the questions they will face in the heat of the campaign. When historians look back at the key moments which led to this result they will highlight the SNP’s 2011 majority win in Holyrood in a system designed to avoid majorities; Ed Miliband’s election as Labour leader and then his increasingly old school left-wing, anti-business, anti-wealth creation, class war approach and rhetoric - coupled with some clangers like his conference speech were he didn’t mention the deficit - the Lib Dems politically damaging (although national interest-enhancing) decision to enter coalition; with the signs that the economy was improving to seem to vindicate the Tories pitch to the electorate - this laid the foundations for the campaign to build.

The campaign itself was seen as lacklustre and at time very boring and safe. That changed at 10pm on Thursday when the exit poll was unveiled. Underlining it was a sense that the winners have delivered the right messages to the right people in the right way. Elections are won by giving voters something to support, something to believe it, something the electorate can aspire to. A lesson the Tories surely learnt from their shocking 2001 and 2005 campaigns and that now needs learning fast by others unless they wish to spend the next 10 years in the political wilderness.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

My general election predictions.........#natesilverneednotworry

In the spirit of openness and at the risk of looking very silly by Friday lunchtime, I have included below my predictions for the general election. I have also included the odds with PaddyPower.

Those predictions of a more speculative nature have been marked *.

Enjoy and don't laugh too hard if I end up looking like the 1992 BBC Exit Poll!

Turnout to be over 67.5% - 5/6
Tories to win the most seats - 1/5
Tories to win the most votes - 1/5
Tories to win over 286.5 seats - 5/6
*Tories to win a majority - 6/1
Lib Dems to win over 25.5. seats - 5/6
UKIP to win less than 2 seats - 8/15
NI - East Belfast - DUP to win from Alliance - 1/6
Fermanagh and South Tyrone - Sinn Fein to hold - 4/11
*Upper Bann - UUP to win from DUP - 13/8
*Foyle - Sinn Fein to take from SDLP - 4/1
Belfast South - DUP to take from SDLP - 5/2
South Thanet - Tory to win (i.e. Nigel Farage not to win) - 11/8
Sheffield Halam - Lib Dems/Nick Clegg to hold the seat - 1/4
*Weaver Vale - Tories to hold the seat - 9/4
Scotland - SNP to win 48 seats - 10/1
Scotland - SNP to win 49 seats - 9/1
Scotland - SNP to win 50 seats - 9/1
SNP to win seats under 51.5 seats - 10/11
PM after election - Cameron - evens
Clegg to be Lib Dem leader at year end - 2/1

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

A very different general election experience

My wife and I have just celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary. A cause of celebration and perhaps not an inevitable milestone for us to reach after our first meeting. We worked at the same organisation - the GMC - and were introduced in a professional capacity by a colleague. She - thinking I assume that it may impress the future Mrs J who has a PhD in Public Policy and worked for several years in Parliament - mentioned that I was a parliamentary candidate and wanted to be an MP. “You know what they say; politics is showbusiness for ugly people” came the reply.

I reflect on this at a time of other anniversaries. I was 37 yesterday (more birthday than anniversary I guess!) and typing this nearly five years to the day since my name appeared on a ballot paper in a general election.

I was the Tory candidate in the Labour stronghold of Halton - combining parts of Widnes and Runcorn in the north west of England. I spent 18 months as the candidate and consider that time to have been a real privilege. I was given the opportunity to meet many fantastic people, doing superb things for their local communities and caring passionately about the future of their families, their towns and their country. It was an amazing experience and one I will treasure forever- but there is a but.

When you are a candidate you are in a local bubble. You spend your time knocking on doors, posting leaflets through letterboxes, giving out leaflets at railways stations, putting leaflets on car windscreens, dreaming about leaflets and generally being obsessed with leaflets. You take part in some hustings where you debate in front of an audience with your fellow candidates and discuss some of the big issues of the day but outside of that you spend the campaign in your world- in your constituency and neighbouring marginal seats. You think about - no, worry about - the national picture and its impact on your result and the country but you can do very little to influence it - unless you do something very stupid!

In truth, the overall campaign happens to you. It happens around you. Although you are in the middle of your small piece of it, you feel like you are on its periphery of the main event. And you are.

This election - in 2015 - is the first since I joined the Conservative Party in 1992 that I have not been actively involved as a candidate, party officer or hands on campaigner. My involvement has been as an observer - a passionate, interested and committed one, but an observer none the less. It is a strange and enjoyable vista. It has allowed me time to really follow the campaign - the Daily Politics and BBC radio have been my essential companion - and reasonably objectively assess the campaigns of the parties, including my own. It also has allowed me time to see the whole picture and what has happened. It has allowed me the opportunity to feel in the middle of it. What have I observed this time?

* The Tory campaign has done what it always seems to do at every national election - start slowly and pick up speed and build momentum (I am ignoring 1997 or 2001!). There have been famous wobbles in past campaigns and then a seemingly change of emphasis, drive and effort. This time is no different.
* David Cameron looked far too relaxed and too cool for many’s tastes in the first few weeks and so now is ‘banging the drum’ and generally looking very excited and passionate - in shirt sleeves and no tie. I think he was playing it safe (hoping, perhaps expecting Ed Miliband to implode) and being very British about it in those early days and it came across as being ambivalent, aloof. He has put that right now. He has said he is “pumped” and he looks it. Anyone tuning in to the campaign late having missed the early skirmishes will see him as the leader with the bit between his teeth and the man with fire in his belly- has he left it too late?
* Ed Miliband has done much better than many thought he would - me included. He started from a low expectations base but has exceeded those and then some. He was doing very well until his stumble - no not off the stage but with his response on borrowing and spending under the last Labour government. He lost momentum then and the ‘can Labour be trusted with the economy?’ narrative has been reinvigorated.
* Nick Clegg continues to be the outstanding communicator in British politics and has performed consistently better than his opponents in all parts of this campaign and yet the electorate appear to have already decided about him. He is damaged goods. That is a real shame. His ‘betrayal’ on tuition fees reflects two things; some naivety on his part when the promise was made and how its subsequent breaking was communicated but more importantly, how immature coalition politics still is in Britain. Hung parliaments and coalitions mean more of this not less. More compromise. Less dogma. More ambiguity. And perhaps better government.
* A main theme of the election has been trust. Who do you trust? Do you trust any of them. The parties - all parties - have struggled to respond to the concern of the public who say can we believe your promises. Pledges carved in stone or promising to change the law to prevent you breaking your promises strike me as profoundly silly ways of building trust. We will see if they work on Thursday.
* The era of two or three party politics is over. This election more than any other has shown that as a country we are looking for different solutions, ideas and personalities than we have been used to receiving. As a long-standing supporter of electoral reform, I hope this campaign will help the drive for a fairer voting system in future, which reflects our country better than our current system.
* That said, I think the Greens and other smaller parties (not the SNP) have blown a big moment. They were given much greater profile this time through the debates and haven’t made that pay.
* Interestingly, people would like the coalition to be on the ballot - they would like a more sophisticated choice than we are offering them - back to electoral reform!
* The pollsters don’t know who is going to win or what the outcome will be. I think the result will look very different - certainly across different parts of the UK - than the polls suggest and that we will need a better model of polling next time.
* It feels a lot like 1992 to me. A very close election. I expect a big turnout - by recent standards. A government emerging from recession asking for more time to finish its work. An electorate not quite sure of the leadership qualities of the main opposition. A number of key marginals deciding the election. I think we could be surprised by the final results when they come in - it may be more decisive - at least for the biggest party than the polls are suggesting.
* We are just around 36 hours from the polls opening and it is still up for grabs. As someone once said, ‘we all start from zero when the polls open”. It is in the people’s hands and I expect some late movement to be decisive as those who have remained unsure have to make a decision as they pick up that pencil on Thursday.

Even though the consensus view is that this election has been dull - perhaps the least eventful in recent campaigns, I have enjoyed it immensely. I will enjoy it even more if - bleary-eyed and tired on Friday morning the country has delivered the verdict I hope desperately for.

On Thursday millions of us will make the short trip to our local poling station - commandeered for the day from local schools, churches and community groups- and place a cross on a piece of paper with a stubby Ikea-like pencil. By doing that we will help pick the government of our country. We - not the media, not the pollsters, not politicians- we get to choose who governs our magnificent country. What a wonderful feeling it is to live in a democracy. What a wonderful feeling it is to have that freedom. Five years ago, 8339 people used that freedom and trusted me with their vote in Halton. Showbusiness it wasn’t but it was a wonderful, humbling feeling all the same.