I thought long and hard about whether to jump on the General Election bandwagon for my latest blog piece, but I’m afraid I couldn’t resist. It is such a big topic in the country right now (and is looking to stay that way for a wee while longer) and there are such clear communication lessons to learn, that it had to be done.
The problem being, of course, that there are so many communication aspects, I am struggling to pin down the key ones to talk about. In the end, I decided to go back to my faithful communications planning structure and cover each area from the perspective of the election. So this is what I think we can all learn about effective communication from the General Election 2015.
You might think that the purpose for communication between the parties, candidates and voters would be obvious: they want us to put our x in their box. But although this must ultimately be the end goal, I suspect that there are far more complicated objectives at play here. The communication strategists for each party will be aiming to increase understanding of their party’s policies; build trust in their candidates to deliver; show that their candidates understand what it’s really like to live on minimum wage or be fighting to access decent social care for your elderly mother; and much more besides. All these demands have to be carefully balanced and delivered upon at the appropriate time.
Lessons we can learn: there is rarely a single objective for communication, particularly in a complex environment and for a big campaign. As a communicator, you need to clearly articulate all possible aims and then objectively work out which ones are really going to move you to your end point – you may need to consider building on your aims over time and phasing them appropriately.
Understanding your audience is absolutely essential for any successful communications campaign. You need to know what’s important to them, what motivates them and how they are already feeling. And you need to have this kind of understanding of all the different groups that make up your audience as a whole. The political parties all use a wealth of data and feedback to help them get this knowledge and in a fast-paced environment, where there is a lot of communication ‘noise’ exerting an influence on voters second by second, updating their data frequently is key.
Lessons we can learn: use whatever data and feedback you have available to you to help you gain understanding and keep it up-to-date – using the last staff survey which happened in 2014 probably isn’t that helpful to you now. Instead find out what people are saying today; sometimes a ‘quick and dirty’ poll or asking around is more powerful than a robust, statistically-validated employee survey when it comes to targeting communication.
Another ‘audience’ lesson is to be clear about which specific audience groups are going to make the most difference to you – the politicians are doing that when they focus on marginal constituencies or show up at a nursery so that they can talk to parents.
The thing that people often complain about when it comes to politics is ‘what do they actually stand for? They all seem the same to me.’ The manifestos that parties produce and promote with great fanfare are their attempt to set out the key messages that they want you to know about them. A few days ago I read a table in a newspaper that laid out the key pledges from each main party on key topic areas – this made their messages so much more accessible and easy to understand (and compare). Sometimes it can feel like the candidates are just saying the same things over again, but this is a deliberate attempt to reinforce key messages – the sophisticated communicators are the ones that can reinforce their messages without sounding like a parrot.
Lessons we can learn: when there is a wealth of complicated information to get across, the more accessible you can make it, the better. Think about how to phrase your key messages in the language that your audience actually use – don’t use jargon or deliberately try to confuse people; increasingly savvy audiences see right through that and it counts against you. When you have your key messages, make sure that you reinforce them, but don’t turn people off by reciting the words like robots.
This election campaign feels like it has been going on for a long time. Many people have either forgotten what was said at the beginning or have switched off altogether by now. The News at Ten has been full of references to the time point in the campaign, as if to underline that this is the last thing that the parties want you to hear about before you have to go and make your mark on your ballot paper. The communication strategists will have planned out what should be said and done when, whilst building in flexibility for the unforeseen stories and events that come up along the way.
Lessons we can learn: if you try to communicate everything at once, your audience will be overwhelmed and not actually hear anything. If your timeframe feels too long for your audience (and you must look at it from their perspective), they will get bored or forget key information. So sitting down at the beginning to plan your timescale around the key dates is essential. But don’t forget that flexibility for unforeseen events!
There are more and more ways for politicians to communicate with voters in the modern world: Twitter, instagram, national TV, face to face in the local shopping centre, print newspapers (there are still some left) to name but a few…. Matching up the target audiences and the methods they like to communicate through is key. We have seen over time how this has changed – Barack Obama famously used social media to great effect in his presidential campaign and our politicians have also had to learn how to use (and in some cases, make a hash of using) new methods of communication. The principles of communication here are no different (there have always been good uses of traditional media and disasters too), but the ways in which they are manifested has changed.
Lessons we can learn: be clear on the channels that your target audiences are using to communicate and use those methods to your advantage. Remember your traditional communication principles, but apply them in new ways. If your employee audience are used to communicating with politicians via Twitter or talking to them face to face in the street, is a printed newsletter from the CEO still going to cut it?
Well, that’s my take on the topic of the day. What do you think?
Until next time