Brown, Cameron and Clegg - the comms experts give their views

For the second debate we asked communications experts for their views on the debate, as well as their own impressions in the aftermath of tonight's broadcast.

Sally Rhodes,

managing director – UK Nations, Regions & Ireland


All three leaders have learnt lessons from the first debate. Eye contact was more prevalent,the human touch was apparent and there was passion, even from Gordon Brown and humour, from David Cameron. Nick Clegg ,again, carefully drew in and engaged with the audience. But the question that remains is, 'How much actual debate 'took place ?' These are not debates in the true sense of the word , they are a series of interlinked party political broadcasts, with digs at the opponents thrown in. We are not given the chance to assess the intellectual acuity of the individuals and gauge whom we would trust to make the right decisions to take us through the many economic and social pitfalls that we currently face. The contenders raise key issues and outline policies, without giving definitive answers. Of course the performances are carefully rehearsed, the messages crafted, the anecdotes honed for maximum impact, this is television after all, but to my mind no-one is 'winning' the debate. The reason? Because not one of the leaders has real presence , or charisma; those essential qualities that would surpass 'performance' and really excite and inspire the electorate The question that remains to be seen is,' Are these events really helping the voters decide where to place their cross on 6 May?

Jane Ainsworth, managing director, Willoughby PR

Clegg: Last week, he went from underdog to top dog. Today, he went from “Churchill to Nazi”. It’s been some seven days for Clegg – current talk of Twitter (#cleggsfault). At the last debate, he bowled us all over on style so today, I focused on substance – and I suspect I wasn’t alone. And darn it, he was good. So good, that he broke the rules, talked over the others and still I was hooked. He remembers letters he received months ago from cold, old people godammit. I forget my own Granny’s birthday. Loved the way he reached out to non voters, “we can make change, not just complain”. Easier to get votes from the “disenfranchised” than from the other parties. Eloquent, thoughtful, stylish, witty, intelligent - Clegg was also brave with his pro-Europe/anti American stance. Could be his undoing, but I suspect not. Only time (and a general election) will tell.

Brown: Slightly disappointed that we never got the Brown car crash we were promised, to be honest. Brown clearly set out to position himself as wiser and more experienced than the other two, “really David...”. And, all was all rather going well until the boys at bathtime gag when he undid a lot of, admittedly, rather good work. I don’t especially like the man but his solid performance and “judge me on my record” stance has convinced me he means well, at the very least – and that isn’t to be sniffed at.

Cameron: Poor night last week; slightly better night this week. Low light coming when he told an 84 year old what he would be doing in 2016. However, he did pick up towards the end and there were some sparky moments that we have come to associate with Cameron. Why, though, didn’t he pick Brown off this week and Clegg the next? That’s the strategy I’d have recommended. Instead, he focused too much (in my view) on why a hung parliament would be a bad thing “look at the bickering already”. I agree but there must be a better reason to vote Tory than the fact it is the lesser of two evils? Anyway, tonight I had expected a Cameron triumph but got a Cameron improvement. He did go running I recall – with a soldier from Afghanistan who was quicker than him. At this rate, not hard. Yes Cameron, the race is on you - but you’ve got to be quicker than this if you’re going to win it.

Dougal Paver, managing director, Paver Smith

Let’s start with the scores out of ten:

Cameron 8

Clegg 8

Brown 6 ½

Setting policies aside, Brown was always going to struggle against two confident, good looking and articulate blokes who are utterly at ease with themselves. Sure enough he did, with his opening gambit a gruesome attempt at mixing charm with force and charisma. Fail.

To be fair, he picked up his game as he moved forward, sometimes statesmanlike, occasionally determined and feisty, but he never quite shook off a look of weariness. Still, a big improvement on debate number 1.

Cameron and Clegg fought a running stalemate: both easygoing and confident and both able to draw on a ready well of passion, vigour and conviction to keep you engaged. Good performances, but maybe Clegg edged it because he was the under-dog, yet never looked it.

That just leaves the policies... I know where my vote’s going.

Wayne Swiffin, account director, BCS PR

It started with a smile from Gordon Brown, followed by David Cameron talking about change – and Nick Clegg playing a personal card straight from the start.

Clegg had had a great first round, a week ago, and was acknowledged as the winner - which made him a target in the media prior to the second round in Bristol. How would he cope?

This time the stage was on Sky. An X-Factor-style background with what looked like a shattered union flag in the background.

Cameron was the first to answer the first question about Europe. He quickly started looking into the camera, talking to people in their homes. Direct. Forthright.

Clegg, led with personal views, raising the eyebrows, smirking where necessary.

Brown addressed the audience and occasionally looked into the camera. He looked smarter, more groomed (a sexy new haircut it was reported as by one Twitterer). It was clear that he was playing the statesman card – as though he could talk from experience.

It was interesting to note that he immediately said Labour was the party to trust – no hint of a pact with the Lib Dems which seemed to have hung in the air after the first round. Brown’s closing speech echoed this.

Clegg (another personal story) talked directly to the person who asked the question. But he kept talking about the old parties (@hwallop on Twitter during the first round highlighted the irony of this).

There was no sign of an unkempt Cameron, as mooted apparently by his aides earlier in the day. He stuck to his calm, cool appearance and it seemed he had been trained to talk briefly to the audience questioner before turning directly to the camera.

It might be said that as the first topic was international affairs, then Brown has direct experience but it would have been interesting to see him face widows whose husbands are now names on a war memorial on a village green.

And that’s a problem with staged debates like this. As the camera scanned the assembled audience, it looked as if some had already given up on listening to prepared answers and the speakers were merely at an orchestrated debate.

It seemed a lot less Clegg-oriented but polls during the debate showed Clegg was doing well (Channel Four for example half way through had Clegg at 66 per cent, Brown on 23 per cent and Cameron lagging behind on 16 per cent).

And while there were some of the personal stories, there were actually fewer anecdotes and a more concentrated effort to focus on policies. Towards the end, they challenged each other on policy.

What was also interesting about this leaders debate was that it seemed there was a lot less conversation on social media sites, such as Twitter or Facebook (although there was a lot about complexions, plucked eyebrows and softer accents). The historic first round was amazing for the number of Tweets – it will be interesting to analyse the statistics as the dust settles.

Roll on round three.

Jonathan Hemus, director of Insignia Communications

Great communicators speak with emotion, authenticity and passion. These rare qualities enable them to engage people at a deep level and inspire them to act differently as a result. These were the attributes against which I judged the leaders’ performances.

David Cameron desperately needs to inspire people to act differently, in this case to vote Tory. In my view, for the second week in a row, he failed to deliver against this. He repeated the “change” word throughout, and he adopted the Clegg technique of talking directly to the camera (and therefore the watching audience at home) rather than always to the studio audience. But it was only when he attacked Gordon Brown about Labour party literature saying “those letters and leaflets from Labour are pure lies” that he became truly animated. Indeed we saw evidence of real anger when he said under pressure from Brown, “we’ll keep free eye tests - will you withdraw the leaflets?” For me it was his best moment of the debate, but why leave it so late?

Nick Clegg kept himself in the game, but failed to make further significant gains. Once again, he positioned himself as the man for change, reiterating that his opponents represented the “old parties”. But he failed to deal with Adam Boulton’s comment about his appearance on the front page of the Telegraph with regard to party donations. In my view, rather than ignore it, he should have dealt with it head on with a longer and more robust answer.

The debate was nearly thirty minutes old when Cameron and Brown delivered their first tag team wrestling blow on Clegg. The topic was Trident: Gordon struck first. “I have to deal with these decisions every day – Nick I say to you, get real”. David pinned him to the canvas with the unique words: “I agree with Gordon”. The tag team took on an interesting twist when the participants quickly changed sides, with Brown and Clegg ganging up on Cameron over Europe: Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks would have been proud of this turn of events.

Gordon Brown’s strategy was to play the statesman role to the full and emphasise the risks associated with both Clegg (“security”) and Cameron (“the economy”). Whilst never as slick as either of his opponents, he seemed more credible, more substantial and possessing greater gravitas. Whilst Clegg and Cameron tried to win the broadcast, Brown’s aim was to position himself as above the bickering, at one point saying that his opponents “remind me of my two young sons squabbling at bathtime”. He reminded us throughout of his frontline experience, dealing with affairs of state to create a clear contrast with his novice opponents. It was the politician’s equivalent of “never getting fired for buying IBM”. For his part, David Cameron used the phrase “if I were your prime minister” on several occasions, without fully convincing us that he ever would be.

In my view, Gordon Brown was the clear winner: the question is now whether his strong performance on one night will be enough to recover the ground lost over the previous two years.

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