Playing the expectation game

Marking A Tick Box

May 5th sees elections across the country.  And of course there will be election results.  But for those working in political communication, a result is not simply a number.  It is a chance to get messages across, of success, of progress, of popularity.  It’s also, for some, a chance to communicate about the strengths or otherwise of individuals.

So with a few days to go to polling day, we can expect communication teams from the major parties, and some not so major parties, to be working on expectation management.

What all parties will want is for the results in May to be seen as good for their party.  Clearly, not everyone can win every contest. So some will be keen to get journalists and commentators focusing on particular fights and paying little attention to others.

So what is happening and what will the comms people be doing?

May 5th will see people going to the polls to elect Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Members of the Welsh Assembly, Members of the Scottish Parliament, The Mayor of London, Mayors in Liverpool, Salford and Bristol, the London Assembly, Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales and local Councillors in many parts of the country.  If America has a Super Tuesday, this must be a super-extraordinary Thursday.

It could however be a confusing results picture.  With so many elections to choose from and so many different roles, political communicators will need to be canny about what matters and what doesn’t.

Perhaps the biggest challenge faces Labour. Corbyn’s team will be keen to direct attention to London, where polls repeatedly put contender Sadiq Khan in front.  Should Khan win, Labour will be hoping that this provides a message of success to drown out any coverage of failure elsewhere.  And failure, or the perception of failure could come from local government result totals and from Scotland.

Combined local government results are sometimes hard to analyse.  In 2012 Labour did well and political analysts will point out that it is the “same seats” being contested this year.  In reality, much can change at local level in four years, and some seats have seen boundary changes.  That caveat won’t stop totals being produced and a win/loss assessment being made. Labour’s challenge, should the party do badly at Councillor level, will be to pull focus back to London.  The Scottish results are already predicted to be poor for Labour so extra focus-pulling will be needed here.

In terms of personalities, expectation management spinning has been going on for some time.  Corbyn’s opponents will want to blame any poor performance on him.  Supporters will want to use a Sadiq Khan victory as evidence that the Corbyn leadership is making progress.  An example of the opponent spin was provided recently by veteran MP Frank Field.  This speech extract is about Europe, but the section at the end is a clear signal.

The Conservatives have an easier job of it.  Cameron’s spinners may need to deal with a loss in London, but uppermost in Tory minds will be the need to focus attention on failures by Labour.  The team will particularly hope for an extra “split” story with their opponents indulging in loud internal arguments. Interestingly, there is also some speculation about whether the Scottish Tories can overtake Labour.  On the face of it this seems unlikely, but any narrowing of the gap by Ruth Davidson’s team will be pounced on by spinners north and south of the border.

What Ukip does and says will be worth looking at.  Since the General Election, at which the party gained nearly four million votes, Ukip has seemed to be losing public support and attention.  Its result in the Oldham West by election was poor given the spin that the seat could be captured.  And there are signs of loss of local strength. On Merseyside for example, the party has failed to find candidates for the high profile Mayor of Liverpool position or the Police and Crime Commissioner role.  There are just a handful of Councillor candidates across Liverpool’s 30 wards.  If this failure to stand is replicated in other parts of the country, the party’s share of vote at Councillor level will be lower than previously – not a good news story for Nigel Farage. Ukip will want to direct attention to Wales, where the party is loudly contesting seats in the Assembly.  Given that Ukip had no representatives in the most recent Assembly, any victories can be spun as an advance.

And what for the Lib Dems?  Actually the Lib Dems are rather lucky this time.  The last few elections have seen an unremitting focus on seat losses and failures.  This time journalists will be looking elsewhere.  The pressure for Tim Farron is off.  The Lib Dems are highly likely to have some successes the party can point to.  The challenge will be cutting through to get those noticed.

Political junkies will be able to start making a judgement from early on Friday 6th May. By then the spinners will hope to have already established their focus.  It will be interesting to see which interpretation of Super-Extraordinary Thursday wins through.

Everything you need to know about the mayoral election

Foot voting. Ververidis Vasilis/shutterstock

On May 5 when the UK next heads to the polls for local and regional elections, voters in London, Salford, Liverpool and Bristol will have an extra choice to make – who they want to become their next directly elected mayor.

Directly elected mayors have a great deal of power – unlike their purely ceremonial counterparts who tend to be senior councillors wearing the robes of office and tasked with carrying out a range of civic duties. Directly elected mayors are there to exercise political leadership and to “get things done”.

London was the first to have this post, but by the middle of next year there will be more than 20 elected mayors across England. And in the recent budget, the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, spoke about increasing the numbers again which could mean more to come.

The modern London mayoralty began back in 2000 following a referendum in London which supported the creation of a mayor and a Greater London Authority and provided legislation to introduce the structures.

More positions were created shortly afterwards, in places as different as Bedford, Doncaster, Lewisham and Middlesbrough. Tony Blair was an enthusiast as is David Cameron – and the push to create more elected mayors has continued ever since. Mayoral elections are for a fixed term, which means those mayors last elected in 2012 will face a contest this year. Terms of office – assuming no death, resignation or disqualification – are four years long.

For or against?

Those in favour argue that mayors can provide strong local leadership. Research looking at the impact of the mayor in Bristol has shown that the introduction of an elected mayor directly resulted in an increase in the visibility of city leadership. But those against say that the creation of elected mayors actually reduces local democracy with most elected representatives having little or no power.

This is because the more power belongs to the one figure, the less power each individual councillor has. An example is that whereas an administration’s budget could be defeated by a majority, the mayoral budget requires a two-thirds majority. Mayors also may not feel answerable to elected councillors because rather than being elected by the council (as council leaders are) the mayor has a direct mandate.

The decision to have a mayor is often taken by a referendum, although there are examples – such as in Liverpool – where local people were not consulted and the mayor was elected by the council. Decisions have also been revoked – both Stoke and Hartlepool decided to abandon the role after controversies. Hartlepool’s elected mayor, Stuart Drummond, was an independent candidate best known for his role as the local football team’s monkey mascot. And a lot of other local electorates in England and Wales have actually rejected the idea altogether.

Despite the significance of these positions, turnout in mayoral elections has been low – participation in the last London contest did not reach 40%. And in Liverpool, back in 2012, just over 31% cast a vote. Politicians know that turnout is partly driven by a sense of a close contest, but in London there was a perception of a contest and yet still the turnout was low.

What does the role mean?

Being an elected mayor is a big job. The largest constituency in Liverpool has an electorate of around 70,000, while the figure for the mayoral contest is closer to 320,000.

The powers of elected mayors vary – but they have great symbolic importance and individuals can develop a strong personal presence, becoming “Mr Salford” or “Mrs Watford” for example. The focus on the individual also encourages image building. The first directly elected mayor of Middlesbrough, former senior Cleveland police officer Ray Mallon became known as Robocop by many,

Many MPs or former MPs also seem to view becoming an elected mayor as a good career move – and in London both main players are current MPs. Leicester’s elected mayor is former MP Peter Soulsby, while Ian Stewart in Salford was MP for Eccles at one time, and former MP Sion Simon reportedly plans to contest the West Midlands post next year.

Who wins? You decide. BasPhoto/Shutterstock

How does the voting work?

Voting in the mayoral elections is a little different to voting in local or parliamentary contests – the system used is the supplementary vote. This basically means that electors get a first choice and a second.

If no candidate reaches the 50% threshold, only the top two remain in the fight and all the other ballot papers have their second choices transferred. This clearly affects campaign strategies and messaging – annoy the supporters of every other candidate and you are unlikely to get second preferences. Boris Johnson needed second choice votes to get across the line in 2012.

There is also the consideration of how the other polls happening on the same day will influence the way people vote. While we might want to believe that voters carefully consider each role separately before making their choice, we know that the presence of one very popular or very unpopular individual on one ballot paper is likely to affect thinking about others.

I voted by post today and had three ballot papers: mayor, police and crime commissioner, local councillor – which is a lot of decisions to make about our future leaders in one go. If elected mayors are to have the legitimacy the government desires then electoral engagement needs to increase. But it’s not the voters fault if they don’t see the point. It is down to mayors themselves to become better at making us see them as relevant enough to care about.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What now for the BBC?

© Copyright Christine Matthews and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

BBC senior managers probably hoped the Smith report (published Feb 25th) would lead to a day or two of heavy duty media work and then business as usual.

Like many of these key moments though, it’s impossible to draw a line. The ongoing story about Tony Blackburn is likely to run for a while. Campaigners claiming the report to be a whitewash are not likely to be silenced. And it’s hard to see how this won’t be taken up over and over again in Parliament. In the context of the forthcoming Charter renewal and the Secretary of State’s views on the BBC, this is a reputational problem that won’t be going away any day soon.

In one sense, there is little the Comms people at the BBC can do to stop, or deal with, much of this. It is probably wise to let some issues play themselves out.

But there are strategies the Corporation can adopt, and perhaps already is adopting, to navigate a way through the problems it faces.

When looking at the topic of reputational damage, you can’t do better than check with William Benoit’s Image Repair Theory.

Benoit has taken all the possible responses to reputation damage and put them into a handy classification list. These include denial – “its not true” shifting the blame “nothing to do with me guv” and mortification “yep I did it and I’m really sorry”. Now obviously the first two strategies here are not open to the BBC. But many of Benoit’s categories are.

The first real response by the BBC was Director General Tony Hall’s statement to the press conference immediately after publication of the Smith report. So what did he say and how did he say it?

The speech begins with a clear example of the mortification strategy. An apology and admission of responsibility. There was, of course, no other option here. But it’s instructive to see how long this passage is. A lot of crisis communications statements start this way with an admission but swiftly move on to next steps. Hall, in contrast, takes 29 lines or paragraphs. Look at some of the quotes.

“So today we say sorry. We let you down and we know it.”

“A serial rapist and a predatory sexual abuser both hid in plain sight at the BBC for decades…”

“The scale and nature of what they did was truly terrible.

The way Savile used his celebrity to promise access to excitement and fun, and then grotesquely exploited it. The oppressive power of his fame and his physical presence. The sense that no one would believe a complaint. Even in their own families, survivors felt alone. The idea that he was known as King Jimmy – there was no escape from him – and, I quote, “no one will believe you”.

Hall’s speech then makes use of what Benoit would refer to as Corrective Action. Depending on context this can range from replacing a broken product right through to a complete change in the organisation. Hall stresses what has already been done and what the BBC plans to do.

“But let me also be clear: since I became Director-General, we haven’t been standing still – we have made this a priority – and there is much we have done already:

“We now have a new child protection policy, shared across the industry, and a detailed procedure for complaints.

“We have child protection advisers, working together across the organisation.

“We have also put in place an improved whistle-blowing policy, supported by an independent investigations unit.

“And we’ve brought in a wide-ranging set of measures to encourage people to raise concerns about bullying and harassment – with a confidential hotline, independent experts assigned to cases and a service to allow mediation to take place wherever possible.”

A third Benoit category is that of Reducing Offensiveness. There are several variations , one being called Bolstering. Bolstering basically translates as “there are good things about me/about my actions too”. So if Bill Clinton were talking about Monica Lewinsky, he might admit the act but also talk about the great things he was doing as President. Or if a company had manufactured a faulty car, it might talk about the speed with which it organised a recall. In this case there are small elements of Bolstering in Hall’s speech. Given the context, this could never have been the major approach, but the stress on what the BBC has already done can be categorised this way as can this quote.

Referring to an external review he said: “They found that the BBC has strong child protection policies in place and that our whistle-blowing policy ranks well compared to other organisations. But they also made 53 recommendations for improvement. Of those, 51 are now complete, one is underway and in one case we have agreed to take forward what needs to be done in a different way.”

However, given the context, Hall was 100% correct to focus almost entirely on Mortification and Corrective Action as his strategies.

So, what now for BBC Communicators?

There is a danger in being too proactive in announcing every move towards change. While being open and transparent matters , it is important that the BBC does not come across as “bullish” about its reform actions. It would be better for future announcements to be seen in the context of wider developments. And of course Lord Hall has flagged up his plans to make announcements on structural change later this year.

The tone of questions at the press conference showed that there will be a hunt for senior heads. Some of the journalists pursued lines naming specific BBC executives. This means the BBC should expect the manhunt to continue for quite some time. It’s important for the Corporation not to get drawn into defending individuals (although simple statements of fact will be needed in some cases)

Relationships with survivors and those representing them will be key over the next months, or even years. Hall has already talked about working with at least one organisation, and of the BBC being in listening mode. But the Smith report has been described as a whitewash, and not just by campaigners but by some who have worked at or for the BBC.

The problem of course is that the BBC is not the report’s author. However, the Corporation is the only organisation that can deal with these accusations. Hall and his colleagues will need to find ways of showing that they are going beyond the report and beyond its recommendations . To be fair, this was the tone of his press conference. But this is very tricky as some survivors may feel justice is only served by particular individuals being named .

I used to think that the least desirable job in Public Relations was press officer for Network Rail. I suspect today many today would put Head of Comms for the BBC at the top of that list. It will be instructive to see how the Corporation manages its communications around this issue, and around its future, as we near Charter Renewal season.

Paula Keaveney’s blog was originally published in Influence, from the CIPR.

Photo:  © Copyright Christine Matthews and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.