In the thick of it: why I’m cutting those politicians a tiny bit more slack

One of Volpa’s Account Managers, Gillian, shares her thoughts on the world of political PR and how a recent experience changed her opinion of the comms teams working behind the scenes.

I can’t be the only public relations professional left sniggering at some of the recent PR clangers of U.K. politicians.

The general election campaign brought some toe-curlers, including two stuttering radio broadcasts: Diane Abbott caught on the hop during a radio interview in which she didn’t have her figures straight over Labour’s proposed financing of increased policing; and Jeremy Corbyn stumbling over the costs of free childcare on Radio 4. These two were even more cringeworthy to me because – hello! – they were radio interviews. That means no cameras. Which in turn means that interviewees can look at notes and post-its and briefing papers galore without sounding like they’re unprepared.

Also during the election, Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable’ slogan grew tired, and unbelievable, after several U-turns on manifest policies. She also decided to bury the word ‘Conservative’ in all her branding and instead choose to push her own name, and personality. Which would have been fine had she demonstrated the personality and gravitas to go with it. Sadly, that was as lacking as Diane Abbott’s mental arithmetic.

Post-election, Theresa May walked into a media lion’s den when she visited the site of the Grenfell Tower fire in London. She made a B-line for police and emergency staff, ignoring local residents completely, a move which incited claims of a snobbery and us-and-them attitude.

And all of it left me, and others in my profession, aghast that some comms person someone didn’t see all the backlash coming and prepare for it.

But enough of the moans. I don’t work in politics, and it’s easy for me to poke fun from a distance. I say that because Volpa had its own taste of politics recently when it was tasked with hosting a senior politician at a client event. And doing so made me appreciate that political public relations is PR on a whole other level.

The politician shall remain nameless, but suffice to say the media presence was healthy. We had everything from local reporters to national TV crews, political columnists to tabloid hacks (one of whom chose to hide behind some bushes rather than be part of the main fray.)

We were given just 16 hours’ notice that said politician was visiting. Cue some frantic writing of speeches and briefing notes. and a long series of phone calls with the party media representative. Having planned and communicated meticulously, I was feeling confident that we had the job in hand. All that remained was for our team to host the politician and handle the press. But that’s when the questions started, and didn’t stop. They ranged from the predictable (“What will X’s route through the factory be?”) to the amusing.

“Will X wear a high-vis vest?” asked the media rep.

“Do you want X to wear a high-vis vest?” I asked back.

“That depends on whether management will be wearing one. The press are wearing them. If the owner wears one too, X will stand out. We can’t have that.”

“What would you suggest?”

“That both the manager and X don’t wear one. That means X stands out, but isn’t the only one standing out.”

Done. I pulled my client’s high-vis vest off.

There was also a detailed conversation about car manoeuvres, which side of the car X would exit on arrival, and in what direction the car would sweep around the car park. We needed a car parking space that was close, but far away enough so as not to detract from the welcome party.

Conversations were interrupted by the media rep sloping off to use his mobile and feeding X and X’s staff with facts and figures on the business. I was impressed to see that each and every fact that was drip-fed to X just minutes beforehand, was cleverly dropped into conversations and speeches on arrival. Smart cookies, these politicians.

The visit only lasted an hour. By the end of it – not even a day after the first phone call telling us of the visit – I was exhausted. I said as much to the media rep. “That’s every day for me,” was his reply.

It’s made me hold politicians and their PR people in much higher esteem than I used to. And while there was no excuse for those radio interview screw-ups by the Labour Party, I’m willing to cut them all just a tiny bit more slack.