The UK Government’s public relations struggles hit a new low last week, when it found itself trying to justify a tax on pasties. That was soon compounded by a much larger error - the ill-advised suggestion that people should start stocking up on petrol, which sparked panic-buying across the country.
Those missteps only served to magnify the prevailing wisdom that the Coalition Government’s PR efforts are failing. The Holmes Report asked public affairs specialists of all political stripes, how they think the UK’s leaders can solve their current PR woes.
VP of external affairs, Inmarsat
The simple answer is to stop the Leveson Enquiry and the atmosphere will change in days.
But an avoidable chasm has opened in Tory communications, because a modernising, professional party turned to journalists to do a communications professional’s job. Editors are not communications experts.
Any government needs an experienced comms director, content to stay in the background and communicate its agenda across business areas, as they would a global company. It should detach from feeding the 24/7 spin cycle. It should stop all coalition office-holding MPs from tweeting and blogging. Have confidence: Building a reputation for considered, measured thought would re-kindle public respect. Media should report-on, not drive the political agenda. Single-issue lobbies feed off the noise, so turn down the volume.
Politics is not a game show and MPs are not contestants seeking daily re-election to the House. Sometimes, less is more.
MD of public affairs and corporate communications, Ketchum Pleon
The excuse that the Coalition is a new government and that is why it is making so many mistakes, gaffes, u-turns, and (to put it bluntly) bad decisions, is no longer credible. Two years in to government, Cameron should have found his feet and should have a team surrounding him who can navigate the complexity of Whitehall as well as anticipate media bear traps. Many political commentators have been focused on the past couple of weeks as a tough period for the government, but actually the first quarter of 2012 has been abysmal from a communications perspective.
Ultimately, the challenge is finding a communications director who has strong instincts, who has the confidence to make tough and controversial decisions, and who actually has a political antennae – Craig Oliver is certainly no Alastair Campbell.
As one example, Francis Maude is one of the most experienced and sophisticated communicators in the cabinet and unfortunately he made a gaffe in a live interview. Rather than the government admitting that they over-reacted and that Maude had made a mistake, cabinet member after cabinet member made their rounds of the broadcast studios defending him and using convoluted language to defend their position.
This is not what the public want from their leaders. If Cameron is going to claw back his poll ratings and win back the confidence of his own party, never mind the wider public, he is going to have to learn the lessons of the Coalition’s mistakes and find someone to give him the raw counsel that Campbell gave Blair.
MD, Blue State Digital
The government needs to both create a more coherent strategic argument, and communicate more effectively tactically day-to-day.
Strategically the government started off with a very strong argument that it was necessary to cut the deficit, and therefore restrain public spending. This argument is now frayed by continual tactical launches of policies with minor spending commitments and by the 50p tax cut, which imply that spending restraint is not necessary. It would be far more coherent to simply say no to everything for a couple of years, than to appear to try and have their cake and eat it.
Tactically the civil service communications machine can't do political communications, so government strategy has to come at least partly from HQ. But, with the exception of some good work by the Lib Dem press office, the political parties have been poor at rapidly decoding policy announcements so that they are palatable for the grassroots. While the parties are increasingly good at using email, Twitter and social media to disseminate information, they have been less good at creating content that is easily understood and used by their own supporters.