Election Public Relations (PR) Politics

What can politicians learn from an ad exec? Lesson 1: Don’t be a dick

By Chris Moody, Strategy Director



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February 15, 2024 | 7 min read

Faith in politics is at an all-time low, says Chris Moody of AgencyUK. It’s important politicians take note – because the stakes this election year are high.

A hand places a voting paper into a ballot box

To build trust and win votes politicians need to change course.

When The Drum put a call out for advice from marketers to politicians in this election year on both sides of the Atlantic, my instinctive reply was simple: “Please, just don’t be dicks.” I might have broken a fundamental rule of being a marketing strategist here by failing to respect my audience. In my defense, I’m not exactly on my own with this opinion.

According to last year’s Ipsos Veracity Index, politicians are the least-trusted profession in the UK. They were already the least trusted in 2022 at just 12%, but they’ve managed to dip to just nine percent last year – meaning fewer than one in 10 people say they trust politicians.

Before I get smug, let’s be clear: marketers and politicians have quite a bit in common. Advertising executives are the second least-trusted profession, with just 16% of the UK public claiming to believe us. Like politicians, marketers are regularly accused of being out of touch with the people we hope most to inspire or persuade.

Politicians, like marketers, should focus on problem-solving

Nevertheless, as Rory Sutherland recently explained on the Politics for Drummies podcast, marketing, and politics differ in both their approach and ambitions. I believe marketing is about solving business problems by helping consumers solve their problems. In contrast, my opinion is that modern politics is about poking a stick into the most divisive issues around to create fear or outrage, often without solving anything.

If marketers fail to achieve measurable business effects, they’ll be replaced. If they fail to solve consumer problems, alternative products or services will do instead. This differs from politics, where elections are typically held every 4-5 years and party loyalty can last for generations.

Perhaps my message to politicians is best expressed not as ‘advice’ but rather as three wishes for my election-year genie. Hopefully, these might help bring politics and politicians toward a more positive problem-solving approach.

Here are three qualities I would love to see front-and-center in politics in 2024.

Seek out diverse perspectives, and then really listen to them

Talk to everyone, not just your dyed-in-the-wool supporters who would elect a Labrador wearing the right-colored rosette. And talk to them about everything, not just the hot-button issues you know make fierce headlines. Begin with no agenda: ask people how they feel about their lives and the world around them. Be sure to listen, to understand what keeps them awake with worry and what makes their heart soar with hope. You could do a lot worse than follow the example of Richard Huntingdon and Mark Hadfield with their What the f*ck is going on? project in which they seek to get to the root of what’s concerning real people most at this troubling time.

Solve problems across demographic lines to build strong support

While seeking perspectives can help you to develop greater empathy for more people around the country, remember that this is about humility. Understand that your role is to represent and serve people, not just your party. Rather than look for and fan the flames of division, seek out the common ground.

We all talk about the differences between generations, but there is often more that unites them than the media thinks. My eldest 21-year-old child, who is autistic and non-binary, would much prefer a face-to-face appointment with their GP than a telephone call. The same is true of my 82-year-old mother but for mostly different reasons. Bring diverse people together with ideas to solve problems rather than setting different groups against each other, however tempting and easy that can be.

Meet the electorate where they (and their concerns) are

Modern politics and its politicians seem happy to rail against huge, intractable problems, when in fact starting small could reap disproportionate rewards. If you are curious about people’s everyday concerns, a host of opportunities to be solved may emerge. Of course, we want our government to have a role in the ongoing Ukraine crisis, but have you not seen the potholes on the A429?!

I genuinely believe that most politicians in the UK enter into their role for the right reasons. But the system has become self-regarding, directed, and shaped by its own needs and biases. Again, this is pretty similar to many brand owners and marketing agencies and I believe the challenges are similar. However, where we marketers mostly have responsibilities to businesses, you have a duty of care to our whole population, and indeed beyond that to the wider world. Politics really does matter.

Dare to be curious, engage and listen to more people from outside your immediate circles, and start solving problems. This will mean breaking out of established behaviors but, to be honest, with trust levels so low, how much worse can it get?

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