The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Tag Archives: liberal democrats

Policy, relationships, practicalities, even thinking about a little bit of governance and leadership – these will all undoubtedly all pre-occupying the minds of many senior LibDems (and no doubt Conservatives).  But right from day one of this coalition, the LibDems, probably more than any other party, will need to keep two things clear in their consciousness – those of identify and narrative – in order to survive the next few years.

The LibDems for generations have enjoyed an easy identity – the third party, centre-left, progressive even maverick – even though it didn’t feature strongly on the radar of the general public.  Well it does now – with many who may have only had a vague, hazy idea of the party struggling to understand it.  Yet in coalition it has already lost some of those identifying features – its connection with the left appears diluted, its radical outspoken tone muted and its position as the ‘progressive’ party will quickly be filled by Labour.

Liberal Democrats - has the identity crisis already started?

Regardless of how this identity has been shaken by recent events, the party will in five years time, possibly earlier, go back to the polls.  At that time, the public will either know who the party is and its story  or that public will be unsure of the party’s narrative and identity, both having been obscured by coalition dynamics.  It is in the gift of the LibDems themselves to choose which outcome will prevail.  This eventuality will also apply to the Conservatives, but their legacy of mainstream government or opposition has enabled a deeper impression in the public psyche – unless Team Cameron are transformed within a heady atmosphere of new concensus politics, and seen to be transformed, they will still be seen as the Tories – love’em or hate’em – at the next election.  And Labour, with a rich and vibrant seam of history, unshackled from the constraints of power, can regroup and develop a powerful  image within the vacated progressive left political sphere.  But the LibDems, if they fail to maintain and enhance their sense of who they are as an individual party, may enjoy a brief moment of government only to be returned to the political hinterland.

As they say, a reputation takes years to develop but can be shattered in minutes.  For the LibDems this hasn’t happened yet (although it has been shaken).  In the medium term, actions and consequences – sheer bloody politics –of the Coalition will of course take their toll on the reputations of those involved.  But if active measures – the determined maintenance of party culture, vision, ritual, ideals – are not taken quickly, to capitalize on the fact that the public are watching them,  LibDem reputation – the very identity and narrative of the party, diluted and fragmented – could easily melt away anyway.   Reputation management is an awful buzzword from the PR industry but, if anything, the LibDems will have to quickly start practicing serious identity management, in order to come out the other end of this Coalition intact.

What happened?  The UK is constitutionally in uncharted waters.  After weeks of political campaigning no party won outright and a massive surge by the Liberal Democratic party fizzled into nothing (although in a remarkable turn of events they now have unprecedented power to decide the political future of the UK)

But after weeks of high profile, in which they went from years of dismally polling a fairly distant third to the other main political parties to sporadically outstripping both of them, to only for that ‘surge’ to melt away on the day that it mattered, even though they gained almost a million more votes ( a one percentage rise) than in the previous election in 2005.  Of course, a presidential-style set of three television debates with the party leaders, a first for the UK, contributed to the media melee.

LibDems couldn't capitalise on their surge - but are still at the centre of the media's glare.

There are several lessons to learn here about political communication.

Firstly, the glare of overexposure threw the LibDem’s campaign. Absurdly, a communication and reputation crisis was spawned from an unmitigated success, not a failure.   Caught out by their sudden success, they had to maintain momentum but remained overfocussed on the Clegg effect and failed to spread the focus of attraction consistently.  Differing messages were given to different media outlets, pandering to the audience without fully understanding that in the modern media environment, whispers get everywhere.

Secondly, CB3 always warns of the problem of over-messaging.  But, being candid, this is in fact a misnomer.  The message must be maintained but the data or information required to support the message – the flesh on the bones – must be varied, otherwise publics will become inured to, or at worst bored of, the same justifications.  The LibDem message was good but the supporting data not varied enough – the public, initially made to sit up on the appearance of the third man saying new, fresh things, became tired of  fresh ideas as they were represented in the same fashion repeatedly.

And thirdly, message momentum has to be maintained and increasingly detailed.  The LibDem stance, and therefore message, on issues such as immigration and Trident, to name but a few, was never fully developed and given substance in terms of supporting data.

Of course, a largely right-wing press contributed to the failure of the surge, but a failure to develop arguments, spread the spectrum and loss of message momentum equally contributed to the failure of the LibDems to capitalise on brief but significant public adoration and the delivery of what is now a constitutional conundrum.

These are lessons, quickly observed but not assessed in detail.  Importantly, they are not criticisms of actions taken or not taken during what must have been a whirlwind ride in the media glare which few could have foreseen or easily dealt with.  CB3 doesn’t wish to be an armchair general and recognises that the challenges faced by the LibDems, especially their campaign team, were massive and little understood by those looking in from the outside.