It was the great bard Dolly Parton who said that if you don’t like the road your walking pave another one.
And so it came to pass that Conservative MP Rory Stewart spent time in the Conservative leadership campaign doing a lot of walking and listening.
As a communicator his strategy fascinated me. He rose from 100-1 outsider to second in the polling with the wider electorate. A key part of his approach was through video.
Who was this geeky looking Scot with the posh voice and the Cumbrian constituency?
With four hours to kill on a train to Edinburgh I went through all of them to see his approach more closely.
Three things I need to flag.
– Firstly, this is an apolitical post.
– Secondly, Twitter is not the whole of the internet.
– Thirdly, if you’re too busy – tldr – the summary is this:
‘If you walk, there’s something humbling about it. You put yourself on the same level as everyone else. You can achieve the optics of walking really easily. You’ve got to really want to be on the level as everyone else.’
So, here we go. There were 98 videos on Twitter over the three week campaign.
If you have time stick around, read it or just scroll through the pictures.
He often cut through spin by talking into a wobbly smartphone
Robert Phillips in ‘Trust Me PR is Dead’ wrote forcefully that the era of spin is dead.
Campaign videos used to be expensive destination TV. The launch of the three-minute party political broadcast was eagerly awaited and dissected. If people were around at 9pm they saw it. If they weren’t, they may have read the commentators in the daily papers the next day. We’ve grown bored with that.
The wobbly smartphone held in selfie mode does much to disarm the appearance of spin.
He took to the road to reach real people
The first electorate in the Conservative leadership campaign was Tory MPs at Westminster. But rather than focus on them, Stewart heading out into the country to meet regular voters. He often told people where he was and asked people to come and talk to him.
So, the act of a politician picking up a smartphone and talking into it directly broke the fourth wall and addressed people directly.
He built a perception that he was out and about
He travelled to Woking, Edinburgh, Peterborough, Derry, Derby, Warrington and Wigan. But not the South West, Wales or the West Midlands. If you were to be glass half full you’d say that he was living the soundbite. Big parts of the country didn’t get visited.
Diagram 1: Population of London vs population of the UK
London is at the centre of British decision making. It’s where power is. But the 8.1 million population is just 12 per cent of the population.
Yet Rory filmed outside London just 15 per cent of the time. But the impact of that chunk delivered huge value for money for him. The perception was that he was out and about and on the road.
Diagram 2: Breakdown of Rory Stewart leadership campaign 2019 videos by place
The fact that a politician would travel to Warrington and Wigan at all was hugely striking. But the fact that it is striking is surely most striking of all. We’ve grown used to politicians being remote and living in fear when challenged by their electorate who are often shown as hectoring and angry.
Think of Theresa May after the Grenfell fire. Heckled by a crowd and reduced to speeding away in a fast car for example.
Diagram 2: Breakdown of Rory Stewart leadership campaign 2019 videos by area
His campaign was built on the revolutionary acts of walking and listening
Walking is the oldest form of exercise.
There is also something deeply pious about the act of pilgrimage to walk. The Gough map of 1360 traces a 250-mile route through Britain to Canterbury to allow people to atone for their sins.
As I was watching the videos I was struck by how much walking Rory was doing. Indeed the hashtag #RoryWalks and #RoryWalksOn showed showed the importance to the campaign of walking. But this was not a genuflecting trail in a hair shirt. This was an attempt to walk to reconnect with people.
If the act of walking for a politician is mildly daring, the act of listening feels oddly revolutionary.
Often the listening clips were focussing on the member of the public speaking and Rory was listening. Sure, editorial control was being exercised by Rory’s team. There was no-one featured who told him to ‘just fuck off,’ for example. But still, the act of listening for a politician felt striking.
For example, showing one chat with a group of young men in the East End that didn’t go so well was almost blooper reel-esque. But even this underlined the authenticity and a willingness to try.
He featured subtitles through many of his videos
From a technical level, this is great. If 85 per cent of people watch video without sound having the text on the screen was vital.
His average video length was 62 seconds
With a nod to the effective length of video on Twitter , the average length was just over a minute. Even his set-piece announcements were split into shorter video.
His biggest audience was an announcement he was in Kew Gardens
More than 1.6 million saw the clip that he was at Kew Gardens and to invite people to challenge and debate him. More than 1.3 million saw him launch a policy ideas for a national citizen service.
The mere act of saying ‘I’m here, come and talk’ connected with people.
He used the platform to rebut and set the wider news agenda
When there was a suggestion that he was pulling out of the race towards the end, he took to video to rebut the idea. Video was a way of shaping the news cycle as it was when he challenged Boris Johnson to take part in the Channel 4 debate.
Put simply, Twitter was shaping the wider online, print and broadcast agenda.
He bore a sense of shame about politics
It’s striking that his launch speech came well after he started to use video but is vital to understand his approach. In his speech he said:
“I’ve traveled around this extraordinary country this great country from Derry to Derby, Edinburgh to Peterborough, Woking to Wigan and and everywhere I’ve been I’ve been listening to you. What is lacking in this debate and in our politics is a sense of shame.”
The video is here:
He took himself to the eye level of people he met
Most strikingly, he shunned the Trump-style election rally and the appearance of the Big Man who was on a pedestal. None more so when he was challenged by a young man who grew angry at the lack of life chances young people were getting. Rory came down from the platform to stand closer, listen and hug him. The hug felt slightly awkward but he tried.
And that earned him the right to be heard and not be milkshaked
Rory’s sense of shame was expressed in an impression humility created by the act of listening.
There was a sense of a pilgrim walk to seek a forgiveness and re-connect with people.
The communications of this is compelling. By being human, the politician made himself vulnerable and by doing so earns the right to listen and only then to ask for support to act.
It didn’t always work. The act of ripping off his tie felt contrived.
By the hard metric of evaluation, Rory’s campaign was a failure. He didn’t reach the last two and won’t be Prime Minister. But campaigns are part of a bigger war. They’re about building support to get a louder voice. It’ll be interesting to see how his career pans out in the next few years.
And yes, Rory Stewart remains a politician. His voting record is what he does. That’s as important as is what he says and how he comes across.
Rory’s show of human comms resulted in him not being abused or have milk shake thrown. That in itself in 2019 is remarkable.