The Labour party’s communications operation has been under attack in recent weeks. Benedict Pringle argues that what might seem like a small organisational issue for a party that is still three years away from a general election should in fact be a major concern for Jeremy Corbyn.
In the last couple of weeks there have been allegations of Labour dealing duplicitously with journalists, diatribes about the quality of the party’s social media content and accusations of apathy towards news organisations.
While the quality of a political party’s press release isn’t a deciding factor for voters, a struggling media operation directly impacts three factors that are crucial to winning an election: the campaign’s earned media share, a sense of momentum and the promise of competency.
There is an amusing opinion piece doing the rounds about the current plight of the Labour Party's social media content.
The opening gambit, written by Martin Robbins in the New Statesman, pillories an image posted on Twitter that promoted Labour’s policy on buses ("Why does the bold text finish halfway through a sentence? Did the Tories cut fonts?”).
At first glance, this might seem a little unfair.
As anyone who has ever followed a political party on social media will know, the vast majority of party-produced content – when there is no imminent election or scheduled 'media moment' – borders on looking like bot-produced spam.
This is usually forgivable when one stops to consider the speed at which the news cycle moves and the amount of resource political parties tend to have at their disposal.
However, given that Jeremy Corbyn points to social media marketing as his main tactic for circumventing a hostile press and building a reputation with the public, it is surprising that so much of it is so dire.
And it’s not like the party can rely on a wave of optimistic user-generated content to paper over the cracks; recent research shows that, in February alone, of the 225,000 social mentions of Corbyn 44% were negative and only 11% were positive (excluding journalists and commentators).
This poor communications showing from the Labour party isn’t just limited to its outbound efforts on social networks. Journalists from the mainstream media, who communicate with millions of voters every day, have taken to venting their frustrations about the lack of effort from spin doctors representing Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition.
Sam Coates, deputy political editor of the Times, lamented that “they aren’t pitching opposition stories, bothered about getting into the papers, or pushing messages”. Marie Le Conte, media and politics reporter for Buzzfeed News, complained that it often takes “well over six hours” to receive a comment on a news story. Paul Waugh, an executive editor of the Huffington Post, called the party's attempts at media management “discourteous and plain counter-productive”.
Even Mark Wallace, editor of the ConservativeHome blog, recently felt the need to explain to readers that its lack of coverage of its traditional enemy was down to the fact that Labour very rarely has "a single story of interest in the entire national press”.
Given that the next general election is unlikely to take place for another three years, it might seem sensible to focus on bigger issues of the day, as opposed to problems around presentation. But according to those that have been at the helm of successful campaigns, elections aren’t won in the weeks leading up to polling day.
Lord Livermore, who helped lead Labour to victory in the 2001 and 2005 general elections, argues that winning requires knowing “the campaign you want to fight four years out” and using the whole parliament to build towards it. Sir Lynton Crosby, the Australian-born lead strategist for the Conservative Party in 2015, puts it more bluntly: “you can’t fatten a pig on market day”.
Labour’s inability to create positive news stories, against a backdrop of negative commentary around the party’s operational ability, has a direct impact on three important factors that decide elections.
Earned media is necessary for success
What do you think is the best predictor of success in US presidential elections? Money raised in donations? Favourability ratings? Money spent on advertising? No. The best predictor of success in every US presidential election since 1970 has been earned media share.
When Americans went to the polls in November last year, Hillary Clinton had raised $581m compared to Trump’s $340m. She had higher favourability ratings than Trump on the eve of polls; The Donald was 39.5% favourable compared to Clinton’s 42%. And during the election cycle Clinton and her supporters spent around $350m on advertising compared to Trump and his supporters who spent approximately $113.1m.
But it didn’t matter, because in the 12 months leading up to the US election Trump nearly doubled Clinton’s earned media value.
Earned media’s ability to predict electoral success doesn’t just have form in the US; consider the fact that press coverage of the EU referendum in the UK was 41% pro-Leave and 27% pro-Remain.
And then know that in the build up to the Conservative party’s shock majority win in 2015 it was backed by the Sun, the Times, the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph, City AM, the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail, the Sunday Telegraph, the Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday.
It’s not difficult to understand why earned media matters: the political news coverage colours the information that voters use to make their judgements about candidates and parties; if there is no news (or only bad news) about Labour, the chances of a majority of voters reaching a positive conclusion in 2020 is minimal.
Momentum matters (not that one)
The earned media a party or candidate gains is also a contributing factor towards a general sense of ‘momentum’. Momentum in this respect refers to the perception amongst voters that a particular campaign is ‘making the running’.
Political scientists have shown that ‘momentum’ is a very real thing in elections: people gravitate towards the party they perceive as likely to be victorious. To use a sporting commentary cliche: winning is infectious.
Motivations for this phenomenon vary. Some voters are simply charmed by the fame generated by a campaign enjoying plenty of media coverage. Others like the idea of backing the eventual winner (“I was right”). And there is a decent chunk of people who vote for the party they think is likely to win, as opposed to their preferred party, because there is a third option they’d like to avoid.
Clearly, polling plays a big role in creating this momentum. But given that almost no polls predicted either David Cameron (in 2015), Trump or Vote Leave would win outright – but all led in terms of earned media share – polling is not the only generator of momentum.
The third reason that attacks on Labour’s media operation should worry the party is that an important aspect of the psychology of why people choose one brand over another is their expectation that it will “deliver” for them.
Richard Huntington, chairman of ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, refers to this attribute of a political brand as its “performance”; he argues there is a world of difference between voters liking what a party is saying and believing they will be able to implement it.
One way voters articulate these fears over the ability of a party to ‘come good’ on their promises is through their views on whether the leader seems fit to be prime minister (party leaders are often used by voters as a mental shortcut for the party’s brand as a whole).
If stories about incompetent communications and dysfunctional media management begin to cut through to voters, they will erode away Corbyn’s leadership credentials (“if he can’t manage his own PR, how is he going to manage the country?”).
And given that in every British election since 1979 the party that has been perceived to be ahead on ‘leadership’ and ‘the economy’ has ended up in government, Corbyn needs voters to see him as someone who can manage and give direction to the affairs of the country.
Control what you can
Corbyn is in an unfortunate and, to some extent, unfair position.
He has very little support from his own MPs and has to deal with almost as many attacks from the Labour backbenches as he does from the Conservatives, SNP and Liberal Democrats. And the scrutiny of his communications operation is much more stringent than reporting on the spinning abilities of the teams behind Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon or Tim Farron.
But complaining about the injustice of his situation won’t get Corbyn anywhere and the scrutiny is only going to get more intense the closer the general election looms.
Totally avoidable events, such as Tuesday’s spat with Sky News at the Federation of Small Businesses – about whether or not the media in attendance were appropriately briefed – need to become a thing of the past. At election time, such moments will move from being a source of amusement among politicos on Twitter to headlines in national newspapers.
With the right attitude, strategy and creativity, Corbyn can get his comms back on track. He badly needs to. If he continues to lose the air war so drastically, no amount of activists on the ground will be able to make a difference to the result in 2020.
Benedict Pringle is the founder of politicaladvertising.co.uk