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News Analysis

By The Drum | Administrator

May 17, 2007 | 6 min read

As Alex Salmond is sworn in as First Minister, in what looks to be Holyrood’s first minority government, the country waits with baited breath to discover how their voting will affect Scotland’s future.

However, as the formalities are underway, in the background, a debate still rages over the new voting system, the rejected votes and the implementation of the new polling format.

As part of this debate, the research and communications undertaken to lead the new system have been called into question.

The election campaign, VoteScotland, created by IAS Smarts, with MediaCom handling the first stages of the media buying, was clearly a high profile campaign, which certainly would have grabbed the media consuming public in this country – on more than one occasion.

Campaign leaflets were sent to every home explaining how the new voting system worked, while information officers were on hand at the voting stations, along with information pop-ups and posters to explain the system. VoteScotland also worked with community groups, organisations, small and medium sized enterprises, companies and charities across Scotland to inform people about how to register and explain how the different voting systems work. A road show even toured major towns and cities around the country, explaining the process and allowing people the opportunity to practice voting.

While the campaign aimed to raise awareness of the election, a key function was to also educate the public in the new two-paper, three vote system. No small feat.

However, following the election, and well-over 100,000 ‘spoiled’ votes, votes that could have potentially changed the results of the election, a witch-hunt has been launched into the “fiasco”, also calling to question the communications strategy.

The Scottish Executive has issued orders for the agencies involved in the campaigns to remain tight-lipped, and, for the time being, the Executive itself would only say that “it would be wrong to speculate on the reasons behind the rejections until there has been a full and independent review.

“The VoteScotland campaign was aimed at increasing awareness of the Scottish Parliamentary and council elections, as well as giving information on how to register and vote, and we will be evaluating it fully.”

Ominous, perhaps. However many believe that the communications were not the problem, rather the implementation of the new, more complicated voting system, in general.

“The only way to keep the new system simple would have been to have held the different votes on different days,” says Iain McMenemy, campaign director at Halogen Communications, who has previously undertaken political consultancy work in Eastern Europe for organisations such as Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Electoral Reform International Services and the UN.

While McMenemy understands how difficult the message the campaign had to convey was, especially with parliamentary and local polls being staged simultaneously, the process was not made any easier by a number of other new introductions.

“Different coloured ballot papers and ballot papers going from six to eight inches long, to a foot and a half. Voters couldn’t fold the completed forms, because, for the first time, they were going to be counted in different ways. The many variables meant that it was impossible to try and get a message across in a clear and consistent manner.”

Communications explaining the new voting process were issued towards the very end of the heavy-weight campaign, in a bid to capture the attention of the public at the right time. However, this is a move that commentators have claimed, perhaps, contributed to the problem.

“The campaign was certainly heavy enough in weight, but perhaps the TV campaign should have had a more practical message to it as well as the inspirational one,” says Morven Gow, associate director of The Media Shop. “Actually showing forms being filled out, physically, in real time, would have demonstrated effectively how to complete a form properly and, although forms were shown in press and in a Royal Mail drop, the danger is that few might have paid attention to the message brought to their door.”

However, the campaign has polarised views and Guy Robertson, chairman of the Scottish IPA and managing director at GRP, believes that the campaign worked admirably. “I was pleased to see lots of exhortation for people to vote as I abhor people who don’t. However, the system itself clearly flummoxed not just the great unwashed but most of us. I can’t confess that I fully understood it myself.

“The problem was that what they were trying to do broke advertising rules. There was no single-minded proposition to the advertising because the product itself, i.e. the system, was flawed. So if I were to relate it to an advertising brief or to the marketing mix, the problem was that the promotion had little chance because the product was flawed.”

The new look SNP advertising campaign, on the other hand, has drawn plaudits from some media outlets, not least for its lack of stunt driven PR this time around.

Golley Slater, the marketing agency that worked on the campaign, spent a year working with the SNP in preparing every detail.

“We avoided gimmicks because what we had to do was to present the party as a party which was fit for government. So therefore we avoided Alex Salmond coming down on a bungee rope or riding a bike,” says Ian Dommett, managing director of Golley Slater.

“He was presented, very much, as a First Minister in waiting. Other people in the party may have done other things, and there was a lot of merchandise and lots of fun things within the campaign, but there was a definite effort to present this party, not as a party of opposition, but as a party of potential government.”

Meanwhile, while the general public are being made to look foolish for not being able to get their heads around the new voting system, many will take solace in learning that several MSP’s were unable to get to grips with their own voting system when electing deputies for the new presiding officer. It transpires that four papers had been spoiled because those members had voted on them, twice.

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