Political Campaigns: Strategies, Ideas and Tactics (Tactic One)

Reading Time: 14 minutes


My previous post was titled Political Campaigns: Two-Way Communications. In that article I argued that political parties and candidates need to move away from information delivery as the primary communication methodology of their public relations approach. I further argued they should move towards a more involved dialogue between their public and themselves. Two-Way Communications is where political parties and candidates attempt to achieve mutual understanding and align their message to their image. There needs to be a commitment of follow-through in Two-Way Communications. In my previous article I pointed to several examples. One such example was that the Scottish Labour Party may create mass-media that imply their listening. However, this doesn’t, in my opinion, appear to align with their practice. They may appear to be slow, or simply fail, to respond to social-media comments or tweets.

Now trying to move away from discussing at length this approach, whilst keeping it firmly in view. I wish to discuss how to plan a campaign strategically, by which I will propose some ideas and tactics towards running a candidates political campaign for public office. This has to be as general as possible. I don’t want someone thinking that running for Council is not as ’in-need’ of running a strategic public relations campaign. The Candidate for Councillor’s need for Strategic PR is just as important as someone running for Parliament, or even to be the next government. It could be argued that a local political candidate needs a much more hands-on and effective public relations approach. The reason they need such a hands-on-approach is that they deal more closely with the general public. Much more closely than a regional or national political candidate, who may just need the appearance of good public relations. Of course I would prefer them all to have great public relations, but in reality candidates will spend finances where they see fit. Each article in this series (from here on) will propose only one or two possible tactics you could theoretically use to run for office. These ideas are not just tactics, they are things to remember whichever tactic you use. That is they are not mutually exclusive and can also feature as elements of different tactics. Just because you use tactic two doesn’t mean tactic one doesn’t apply. This particular post will just focus on Tactic One — Celebrity, and just few ’things’ around that.


Your candidate is a celebrity — no not a Justin Bieber (or a Kylie Minogue for us of a slightly older generation) -type celebrity. And they may be completely unheard of, but then this is part of the duty of the campaign, to raise their profile.

Conservative party leader Ruth Davidson holds a press conference on May 6, 2016, in Edinburgh

Take Ruth Davidson, of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, during the 2016 Scottish Parliament Elections. Much of the campaign literature put out by the party didn’t highlight the party as much as it did Ruth Davidson, they made her the focus of the campaign, not the party. Ruth Davidson became a ’celebrity’ and the “Nasty Party” became the “Ruth Davidson” party. Notice the framing of the press conference (pictured right) and the campaign rally (pictured below). Her party logo is the only thing in sight, not the party name, the distancing was raised in media, if only briefly, as a personality campaign:/span>

Davidson ran a strong campaign, matching the SNP’s personality-led “Re-elect Nicola” slogan with her own “Ruth Davidson for a strong opposition”. – The Guardian, 2016

Edinburgh, UK. 04th May 2016. Ruth Davidson began her final push to lead the Conservative Party to opposition in the Scottish Parliamentary Election with an eve of poll rally at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh Credit: Richard Dyson/Alamy Live News

It was something highlighted by Political Professor Paul Cairney at the University of Stirling in his ARTICLE for Scottish Affairs:

Indeed, many of its campaign materials emphasised Ruth Davidson’s leadership without mentioning the party’s name at all, in part to address the low value of the Conservative brand in Scotland without becoming a separate Scottish party…
Ruth Davidson became the brand, the celebrity, in as much as Nicola Sturgeon is for the Scottish National Party. Davidson has continued to act in a semi-celebrity manor at subsequent elections, to ’raise the profile of candidates’ for her party. It becomes about her and not so much about the party. It becomes about what the candidate stands for. And not the wider supposed ’image problems’ of the political party.
In the case of Ruth Davidson it has not always been plain sailing. For no political candidate will it be plain sailing. There will always be multiple issues to overcome, including raising their profile; communicating their policies; and also any scandals.

Raising Profile

Boris Johnson left hanging 20ft in air after getting stuck on zip wire

Raising the profile of your candidate is both about marketing, branding, advertising and public relations. It can be done through a specific policy, championing an idea — such as Nigel Farage and Brexit. It can be about making them appear more human, such as Boris Johnson’s 7 appearances on Have I Got News For You. His first appearance on the show is credited with helping him get elected as Mayor of London (Sonia Purnell, Just Boris: Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise of a Political Celebrity, 2011, 176-17; and Andrew Gimson, Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson, 2012, 127-129). Whatever you decide to use to raise the profile you have to play to your audience and your candidate’s strength. In the case of Boris Johnson it was and is his television appeal, as described by Benji Wilson in the Telegraph:

It was vintage Johnson, Johnson premier cru – on the face of it taking a rinsing from Eddie Mair about past indiscretions, and yet once the harrumphing was done the abiding feeling was, “that was another wonderful piece of telly starring Boris Johnson.”…Regardless of what you think of Johnson’s politics or predilections, the man is TV gold.
O.J. Simpson holds up his hands before the jury after putting on a new pair of gloves similar to the infamous bloody gloves during his trial in Los Angeles

And that’s the point, it’s not necessarily about the candidate is good, or even loveable, it’s about their media profile. So whether getting them to give speeches at impressive conferences or at rallies; or to meet people in meet-and-greets; if it’s crying on Oprah’s sofa. The job is to raise the profile enough so that your candidate is the most obvious candidate. When fighting an election it doesn’t matter if there are 20 candidates if your candidate is the most talked about. Positive or negative media coverage doesn’t appear to matter (just look at Donald Trump). What matters is if they’re talked about. If the only candidate that 90% of the electorate has heard about is yours, if the profile is so large it swallows everyone else’s up, you’ve achieved half the battle.

As Barbara Goldsmith wrote in The New York Times:
The line between fame and notoriety has been erased… the criteria of their celebrity being that their images encapsulate some form of the American dream, that they give enough of an appearance of leadership, heroism, wealth, success, danger, glamour and excitement to feed our fantasies. We no longer demand reality, only that which is real-seeming…The public appetite for celebrity and pseudo-event has grown to Pantazruelian proportions… (quoted in Public Relations: Strategies and Tactics, Dennis L. Wilcox & Glen T. Cameron, 2009, 572)
Actress and longtime Donald Trump nemesis Rosie O’Donnell lashed out at the president once more on Tuesday, taking to her Twitter account to say that anyone who “stands” with or “works” with Trump in any capacity is a “Nazi.” (Breitbart)

…and Wilcox and Cameron also note that sometimes an argument with another celebrity will be beneficial:

Most recently, Trump is the star of the television show The Apprentice, whose TV ratings benefited in 2007 from his inflammatory war of words Mith Rosie O’Donnell, cohost at the time of a talk show called The View. Love him or loathe him, “The Donald,” as he is sometimes called, is the consummate newsmaker and celebrity He is also a remarkable survivor of personal and business crises and scandals. (from Public Relations: Strategies and Tactics, Wilcox and Cameron, 2009, 572).
General election 2017: Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn grilled live on Battle for Number 10

It’s therefore important to remember that a negative image is not necessarily an insurmountable problem. Sometimes Mr. Nasty can be seen to get a job done effectively and efficiently. Opposed to Mr. Nice, who flip-flops and just wants everyone to be happy. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Theresa May won her snap general election in 2017, over and against the vegetarian-green-living and pacifistic Jeremy Corbyn.

Donald Trump

It is important to realise that some people seeking political office may somewhere on the narcist spectrum. Speaking about the “New York real-estate high roller” and now President of the USA, Donald Trump, Dennis L. Wilcox and Glen T. Cameron, noted that, Trump placed his name everywhere, had his own Publicity agent (aside from the one employed by his business empire) and also telephoned reporters with stories about himself.

Whilst a “bad image” may not be an insurmountable problem, it is vital that this is repaired, even in part, if its seen as vindictive, mean or cruel. ’Public Relations Counselors’ can work to create a positive image for their client, using tactics such as:
  • “proclaim dismay & lack of knowledge when the facts support innocence.
  • make reparations when a celebrity punches a journalist or breaks a paparazi’s camera
  • reverse the role from offender to crusader for the new cause
  • arrange an event or conference to make the new commitment real
  • proclaim the new role through media relations efforts.” (from Wilcox & Cameron, 2009, 572).
We’ll come back to the Scandal and Damage Control elements of this in a while. However, another important part of raising the profile of a candidate is the ’psychological factor’. In terms of Celebrity culture these factors can include ’selling the dream’, a “you to effect”. Some have attributed this as to the reason working class people vote for the Conservative party. The when you make it big or become wealthy, the Conservative tax cuts will benefit you, thinking. As Wilcox & Cameron note regarding the pre-television days of Holywood though:
Dreaming of achieving such glory for themselves, young people with and without talent came to Holywood to crash the magical gates, almost always in vain. (Public Relations: Strategies and Tactics, 2009, 574).
Another Psychological factor may be the “hero” approach, as Wilcox and Cameron wrote: “Many ordinary people leading routine lives yearn for heroes.”. Your candidate could become a hero for a particular cause or policy; or perhaps for the preservation of “American Dream”; or “Our way of life”; or “traditional values”. Of course, this can tie into the “Selling a dream” factor. If you use the sell a dream positioning, its worth also thinking about if your candidate should or could become the hero or champion of that dream.

Whilst its okay to have a “solo-hero” or “celebrity” for a candidate, you may wish to tie them to a specific community or create a sense of community. In recent times some politicians, sometimes with little success, have tried to make themselves the “hero” of a particular community. An example of this failure is Tasmina Ahmed-Sheki for WASPI women. In truth, it is best to simply be the “facilitator” of giving “voice” to that community. By giving a voice and championing a particular section of the wider society, you can become both a hero, but also give a sense that you are helping a particular community. The facilitator can be a vote-winner, the Labour Party has traditionally excelled at being a facilitator and sometimes as the hero. As Labour became the political voice of the Unions and the working classess.

British Labour party Leader Jeremy Corbyn (C) stands with campaigners outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on September 13, 2016, during a protest calling for an inquiry into the Battle of Orgreave and the policing of the miners strikes. The campaigners are calling for an inquiry into the way that police handled events outside the Orgreave coking plant, near Sheffield, north-east England, in 1984. (Getty Images)

In recent times this has ’given’ way to less ’firm’ ideologies. Other political parties have taken the mantle of championing the voice of “Scottish-ness” (the Scottish Nationalist Party); or “British-ness” (The UK Independence Party). This has in turn led to a more divided society. As argued briefly in my previous article – the Scottish 2014 independence Referendum has created a divided Scotland.

Boris Johnson on Have I Got News For You

The final psychological factor is best known as the Entertainment factor. People’s desire to be entertained. As already mentioned, I think Boris Johnson is a classic example of this. His appearances on Have I Got News For You, as well as his various ’stunts’ and “comic” witticisms, are a desire to entertain on his part. And those who accept and enjoy Boris Johnson’s “adventures” do so because they have a desire to be entertained. Wilcox and Cameron state: “A public relations practitioner assigned to build up the public image of an individual should analyze the ways in which these psychological factors can be applied. Because the client’s cooperation is vital in promotional work, a wise publicist explains this background and tells the client why various actions are planned.” (Public Relations: Strategies and Tactics, 2009, 575).

Raising a candidates profile, however, is not the whole battle. Once you have carefully curated the rise of their profile, they’ll need to continue that public-pereception profile. If that means the candidate (even post-winning an election) continues to campaign on picket lines; or continues to do-meet-and-greets; or continues to give impressive speeches at prestigious conferences. The point is your candidate needs to be authentic, there is no point getting a dry person to be the funny comedian if they can’t continue that persona later.
Occasionally you may need to get your candidate to ’shake things up’ a bit, If they’re always serious, try and get their humour out. But you can’t do it all at once, you have to slowly change an image, degree by degree. If that means they make an appearance on Have I Got News For You and takes a ribbing then so be it. Now I appreciate that not everyone can appear on these kinds of shows. The truth is these types of televisions and radio shows will look for people with a certain profile/expertise as it is. The local candidate for council will not have such media exposure, but there are local radio & television stations and local newspapers. One should not forget the power of social media, especially in the ability to share videos and pictures.
It is vital that any campaign includes videos and pictures, to lack is to miss a great campaign trick. And you can make a video using a mobile phone, there is no excuse in the 21st Century not to have video as part of your campaign. Not only does it help raise profile. Video helps communicate ideas, policies and visions. Visuals allows those watching to ’experience’ the candidate, even if you can’t get to their house.

Communicating Policies

One of the major parts of a political campaign is the policies, platform or issues that your candidate stands for. Simply re-hashing the manifesto of the party or even ’relying on historic values’ may no longer be enough. The candidate should find specific parts of the manifesto they can make their own, and specific parts of history, the spirit of which, they can recapture.

Daily Express 2010
Daily Mail, 2017

It’s important that the candidate captures the mood of the electorate, wider public and the press when articulating their policies. Inappropriate articulation, or ’flip-flopping’ will almost certainly lead to the twisting and misunderstanding of the actual policy, and the caricaturing of the candidate. Classic examples of this are Theresa May’s “Dementia Tax” and Gordon Brown’s “Death Tax”.

Whilst the policies weren’t actually that different from each other, both led to the Labour Party under Gordon Brown and the Conservative Party under Theresa May u-turning on the policy. A U-Turn creates more negative press and makes the candidate look like an indecisive leader. When framing a U-Turn, it may be best to do so “in light of new evidence”, or to frame the U-Turn “after subsequent research”. A better framing, at a much later date, would be as a “development and/or maturing of thought”.
A U-Turn that is immediate will certainly look bad. A u-turn down-the-line is not so bad. If an immediate U-Turn is necessary then it must be done. It is poor to ’stick to your guns’ simply to avoid controversy. Another important element of this is to make sure your policies conform to your wider image. There is no point trying to promote UK wide trade if your whole image is focused on Scottish nationalism, or if your image is perceived in that way. It would also be poor to focus on promoting Europe wide trade if you’re the wider image is focused on leaving Europe. Whilst these two examples do not show directly contradictory positions, they appear to. Appearance is 50% of the battle.
As part of this, you should develop just three key points to develop in every meeting, interview and publication. More than three and the points become lost, less and your policy platform begins to look thin. Michael Bland recommends that in broadcast media your ’punchline must come at the beginning’ and that brevity will be your key. (Bland, Effective Media Relations, 2009, 99). Another key point that Bland makes is that what you have to say needs to be simple. This is why Theresa May and Gordon Brown’s policies became known as ’The Dementia Tax’ and ’The Death Tax’ respectably. It may be good to come up with your own ’short form’ so others don’t beat you to it. As part of this focus on simplicity it’s vital to repeat your three key points in a single interview on Radio, Television or even in your promotional material. Your three points should not be repeated verbatim, ’it is better to say the same things several times (in different ways) than to say several things once.’ (Bland, Effective Media Relations, 2009, 100).
It is important these days to remember that endless catchphrase repetition is not helpful. Recent examples as “Strong and Stable” or “For the Many, not the Few” may be powerful phrases, but endless repetition lead to ridicule and possibly back-fired. This is especially true if your candidate has all the personality of a robot. One plan politicians have used in General Election campaigns, usually when they have time to campaign, is to outline a single policy at either each event or each week. This is a sound strategy and conveys the policy effectively. Of course, one must be willing to adapt and respond to events out-with your control. Assuming you have just four weeks, that’s four key policies you’re going to champion once elected. Every interview, every press conference, every speech (to general audiences) across each week, should follow the same basic structure. Highlight three key points of your policy. Some specific methods of communicating that policy should be used are short info videos on social media. Not talking head videos, which can be okay if you’re aligned with another celebrity. Your focus should be conveying information about yourself and your policies in no longer than 30-second bursts.
Not just videos but graphics can be incredibly helpful in conveying your policies, again social media will be vital to the distribution of these. Campaign leaflets, in my opinion, often contain too much text. You’re campaign leaflets should include aproximately 25% text maximum. Any more text and your leaflet will drown. One should not then crowd the leaflet with too many pictures (approximately no more than 40%). Pictures, in my opinion, should never be ’face on’ but iso-views, they should look candid to make you appear approachable, however staged they may actually be. The leaflet should have careful placed blank space, again not too much, probably around 15% maximum. The other 20% should be reserved for the large name of the candidate, the party name and the campaign slogan, which although text should be considered as graphic-text (the party logo is a graphic-image).
Another form of campaign leaflet, which I have seen, is the 1 sheet ’newsletter’ or ’newspaper’ approach. This is a clever idea, and can convey more information than a simple leaflet. If there is a local newspaper, they will probably print your ’press release’ during an election campaign. Remember they will almost certainly print other candidate’s too. It is possible, though, that they may not print anyone’s. They may print it without too many edits, if you are lucky. The other part of this is to consider if your budget will be blown on a leaflet for which the newspaper will serve just as well, especially if the newspaper is free-to-read (as opposed to one you purchase). Consider digital newspaper value as well, your ’article’ will almost certainly get publish online. Once published online you can share it via social media. People are also more likely take stock of what the newspaper “says” about you, rather than just what you “say” (even when it’s one and the same). Add to this, consider that even a local paid paper will most likely publish online. Consider the reach of the newspaper, does it cover the whole of the area in which your campaigning. Will they publish in full or close to full what you’re saying? Is their readership wide enough, or would you better printing a 2-sided, 1-page ’newspaper’ to distribute to every house you can in an area?
I have briefly mentioned press-releases, these during an Election campaign will almost always be accepted by a local newspaper. If you want a wider audience you’ll need to write these very carefully. Always include interesting and relevant pictures with every press release. On top of this, you should consider where you host or launch events and policies. Obviously launching a pension or tax policy at a prison may not make any sense, though it may make you lots of headlines, probably all for the wrong reasons.

Oratory – Speeches

Another important factor, often a little over-looked is speeches. It’s actually a vital part of Public Relations, and certainly a vital part of the celebrity candidate’s arsenal. I will focus more on this in my article on ’tactic two’. Some basic points until then: If you choose (as a candidate) to hire a PR guy, and also include speech-writing in their remit, it has to be someone who knows you well. A ’short-hand’ between you will be helpful, as well as the ability to read one another. If you have to make speeches, either to large audiences, small groups, live, pre-recorded for television, impromptu, pre-recorded etc, get some training in speech writing and speech making. There are some great books out there that can help. There are also some great organisations like Toastmasters‘ (locally to me: ‘Stirling Speakers‘). As well as the ‘English-Speaking Union‘; ‘Association of Speakers Clubs‘; and the ‘Professional Speaking Association‘. Most university student unions have a ’Public Speaking Society’ which is usually cheaper, and can usually be joined by external members of the public. I used to (last year, before being a student at Stirling University) belong to the ‘University of Stirling’s Public Speaking Society‘. There are almost certainly a whole raft of Public Speaking Socities – a simple online search will help you find them. Next time, in Tactic Two, I’ll give some ’ideas’ around Speech making, as well as covering the history of oration and rhetoric…’