It’s the last few days of the 2019 General Election and I’m mapping the trends and techniques of the past few weeks.
Remember the Barack Obama ‘Hope‘ image from 2008? or ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It‘ frontpage? Or the Saatchi ‘Labour isn’t Working‘ poster of 1979? All winning images that reflect the prevailing influence of the shareable image, the newsstand or the roadside poster ad.
A General Election is a petri dish for comms where ideas are tried out. Successful ones are adopted more widely by the comms profession.
But what of the crop 2019?
In a word: depressing.
There’s enough here to be quietly terrified at the state of democracy and of comms in general.
First, this is an apolitical post looking at techniques and ethics.
Second, not all political comms, PR and digital people indulge in unethical behaviour. Some of this year’s hot trends don’t appear to have come direct from the party political machine. Not every party is blameless.
Thirdly, paid, earned and owned. That’s a mix that plays out online just as it would a comms plan.
Calling out the unethical
Former CIPR President Stephen Waddington has blogged to call out some of the behaviours. He’s right to do so. My great worry in the shake-down of all this is the damage to the profession and the pressure on comms people to knock-up that quick sock puppet account. Stephen is dead right when he says we need to hold the line.
Responsible bodies such as the CIPR, LGComms and the Government Communications Service need to re-state their commitment to ethical comms the day after the election if not before. As a profession, we need resources to help people deflect requests for unethical behaviour. We need to know where the line is so we can hold it.
Techniques during the election
Of course, it’s worth remembering that so much of electioneering in Britain is envelope stuffing, doorstepping and leaflet pushing. In 2019, online campaigning is having a direct influence but so is the army of volunteers pounding pavements.
In 1983, Margaret Thatcher would look for the two TV news cameramen from the BBC and ITV. The 24-hour news cycle hadn’t kicked in and the landscape was dominated by the newspaper frontpage, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and the 1 o’clock, 6 o’clock, 9 o’lock and 10 o’clock news.
That 24-hour news cycle feels more like 24-minutes. Journalists on Twitter break news. But so do the public. The passer-by captures the heckle then posts it online. The journalist rips the video and shares it.
Misinformation? Some say that we all need to get clued-up on how accurate what drops into our timeline is. We probably do. But we won’t. Not if that video chimes with what we think. Besides, its far quicker to share it and move on than to spend five minutes researching provenance.
From a small base, the 2019 election has seen Facebook ads embedded as a campaign tool. According to the Finanacial Times. The Conservative Party launched a staggering 2,600 ads in a single day with spending projected at reaching almost £3 million outspending their rivals with deeper pockets.
But when one campaign group calls ads ‘indecent, dishonest and untruthful‘ we have a problem.
Facebook has prepared and tweaked for the 2019 election but the decision not to take down Facebook ads that lie is baffling.
The days of a single image campaign are over. That’s the double whammy bombshell.
Status: Legal but content is unregulated.
Single issue websites from campaign groups where it’s not immediately clear who the campaign is from
In the week before the election, social media was flooded with tailored content that compared the three main parties’ education spending. What is particular about it is that you can search for your school and find out relative spending plans. So, its’ personalised content.
The schoolcuts.org.uk can create content for more than 20,000 schools that delivers a personal message. Who is it from? It’s a site maintained by the Education Union and supported by four other unions. It even awards itself a blue tick.
Status: Legal but hard to verify.
Fake local newspapers delivering a political message
It’s an interesting take on trust that a newspaper is recreated in this approach. Trust has rebounded for newspapers, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer so parties have gravitated towards this technique.
While its on the right side of the law, media companies are unhappy and it feels like this approach has a shelf life.
Status: legal but owned media posing as paid is questionable.
Content is created outside of the party machine
I’d love to see research that shows how much content comes from parties and how much from voters. Like this instagram post.
Real fact checking websites
It comes to something when the truth rather than coming from the media or the politicians themselves now needs to come from a fact checked source.
Fact checking websites such as fullfact.org are running a checking service that seeks to correct mistruths.
While they’re diligent they’re also niche and are unlikely to have a popular reach.
Status: Legal and a higher level of verified trust.
Misleading fact checking websites
Twitter described as ‘misleading’ the Conservative Party rebranding of their main account as a ‘fact checking’ service.
Of course, rather than an independent fact checking service the account was a partisan spin on the Opposition. There is a school of thought that the ploy was a deliberate attempt at controversy in order to get commented upon and shared thereby blocking the light for any debate around opposition policy.
Status: Legal but questionable.
Shit posting for the RTs
Shit posting is the deliberate tactic of posting poor content with a message to get it to stand out.
This New Statesman piece describes the early Conservative campaign strategy of comic sans to spread a message.
It’s also a technique I’ve seen in one or two other places. Harmless. Sometimes fun. But not something everyone can do not least all the time.
Emails to the converted with clear fundraising calls to action
In the 2017 election, Labour were particularly effective at fundraising through targeted emails to supporters but its a technique all parties use.
Governed by GDPR this form of owned political comms is that rare thing… something governed by legislation.
Status: Legal and regulated.
Poster sites now just mock by reminding of past statements
One striking thing in the 2019 election is the almost complete absence of billboard posters. Once a striking feature of a campaign they now seem to have been relegated to the fringes of the toolbox.
By 2019, the art form has been fully subverted by campaign groups like the non-party political Led by Donkeys who play back statements and comments that come to haunt.
As an advert, they are governed by the Advertising Standards Authority.
Status: Legal and regulated.
Heckling by reminding of past statements
Back in the olden days politicians would tour the market towns armed with a soapbox and a megaphone to address the willing and win over the doubters.
In 2019, the big hitters were kept well away from real people. But when they were let out the heckling was curiously fact based. It’s less ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out’ and more ‘Where’ve you been? You took your time’ or ‘Racism has gone right up since you’ve been here.’
Status: Legal and traditional.
Complaining about empty chairing
As politicians are more reluctant to submit to scrutiny from journalists the trend of empty chairing has emerged. This strategy is placing an empty chair in a studio where the invited politician would have sat.
As a campaigning tool, complaining about empty chairing has become a strategy.
The intention is to create some noise for the 24-minute news cycle and draw attention from the fact that the politician is ducking answers.
The request for interview feels like its gone from a must-do to a maybe. So when Boris Johnson refused to be grilled by Andrew Neil on the BBC opinion was divided. Some comms people thought he’d lose by appearing to run. Others thought he may put his foot in it.
Status: Legal but there’s a question about transparency.
Shaky video on the hoof
I’ve banged on for the past five years about the emerging trend that’s now mainstream. Your smartphone has a video camera. So, press record and use it.
Jess Phillips here uses selfie mode to say she’s at the Little Explorer’s Nursery in Sheldon, Birmingham with noise and activity in the background. It has a re-elect Jess Phillips logo and is subtitled. Two big ticks.
The death of the set-piece party political broadcast
Ten years ago, the words: ‘There now follows a party political broadcast on behalf of…’ was about as far as most people got. The formal introduction at allotted times pointed out the fact that what was following was propaganda.
The internet has made the formal film dead while the informal social media video is very much alive and well. Take the Conservative’s faux-walk and talk fish and chips or a Sunday roast questioning.
Unattributed false briefings translated into instant news headlines
On the day when Boris Johnson caused a storm when he refused to look at the image of a four-year-old sleeping on the floor of a hospital the health secretary Matt Hancock was despatched to the hospital.
When the visiting politician left protestors gave him a send off. Within minutes the media had been briefed that a Tory aide had been punched in the face. Within hours this was shown to be false by video shot by a bystander.
Whatever the ins and outs of this, false briefings to journalists are a really bad idea.
Status: False briefings are unethical.
Sock puppet accounts
Sock puppet accounts are accounts set-up to share and amplify a point of view.
‘Very interesting,’ the text starts. ‘A good friend of mine is a senior nursing sister at Leeds Hospital – the boy shown on the floor by the media was in fact put there by his mother who then took photos on her mobile phone and uploaded it to media outlets before he climbed back onto his trolley.’
The thread traces the two-hour window where the version was shared unchallenged. Two things are wrong with the post. Firstly. Leeds Hospital is called Leeds General Infirmary and secondly, senior staff had accepted the version of events and apologised.
There is no suggestion these misleading tweets came from a political party.
Status: Unethical and terrifying.
Facebook groups being the new frontline of political campaigning
I’ve blogged before about the reach of Facebook groups in small communities. They are the digital Parish pumps and they play a part in an election.
The four-year-old sleeping on the hospital floor debunking was pushed through Facebook and through groups. The same text was used that started ‘Very interesting. A good friend of mine is a senior nursing sister at Leeds Hospital…’
The contrary message follows some hours later.
Twitchfork mobs of supporters accusing journalists / Jews / People who don’t believe in the project enough
Journalism is said to be the first draft of history so the first tweet is the first doodle in the margin.
Journalist’s Twitter accounts are seen as the new front page. There is a race to break news that sometimes leaves verification behind. If ‘a source’ claims something the reporter posts to Twitter and that something then takes a turn on the news cycle.
There’s something really troubling about the mob in action and in 2019 there’s been plenty of it in the run-up to the campaign and during it.
Laura Keunssberg of the BBC and Robert Peston of ITV come in for fierce criticism, often unwarranted.
Status: Fair debate ranging to the illegal and unethical.
Misleading stories going viral
Liberal Democrat leader was the subject of a misleading piece of information as this detailed BBC piece shows.
The allegation starts on one site, is shared by another and then before you know it is halfway around the globe before the truth has got its pants on. The BBC piece here is well worth the read.
Status: At best unethical.
Microphones are everywhere #1: The Tory MP and the planted door knock
The MP who briefed his friend on what to say had forgotten that he had a microphone on. So, when accompanied by reporter Michael Crick he appeared not quite as straight as he could have.
Microphones are everywhere #2: When you go to be interviewed take your own film crew so you can get your pre-buttal in
When Boris Johnson refused to appear on the Channel 4 Leader’s debate he sent Michael Gove instead. His film crew then filmed the response of Channel 4 staff.
While legal this exerts pressure on the journalist to comply and justify on the spot.
Status: Legal but you’ll probably burn your relationship with the journalist.
The sharable parody
Cassetteboy is an artist who cuts and pastes political interview and speeches into mock pop videos.
In 2019, a parody of ‘You Can’t Touch This‘ attacks Boris Johnson for his perceived lack of trust. It wracked up 260,000 views in five days against 90,000 in 16 hours for the Conservative Party’s own ‘Love Actually’ parody. If they are a parody legally you’re covered.
At a glance, it feels as though ethics have gone through the window at times during the 2019 General Election. It doesn’t matter if you lie because the pace of the internet moves it on and besides, no-one watches the news. We’re also all over the place consuming information in different ways on different channels.
But there will be greater pressure to to bend the rules.