Political Campaigns: Two Way Communications

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I will be careful to avoid singling any specific political campaign or party out. To do so would be the way to lose friends and make more and stronger enemies. Singling parties or campaigns out does not help create constructive dialogue. I believe the examples I use are helpful guides to understanding my approach to this topic. They are used as ’recent examples’ rather than as the only or best examples. Other political parties are just as guilty of these mistakes. Examples provided are therefore not the “worst possible” cases, but are generally minor mistakes, in my opinion.

Recent political campaigns, that I have witnessed, and consider to be of a poor standard, is the primary factor in attempting this dialogue. I hasten to add that my desire, as a Labour Party Member, is to see the Labour Party in Scotland improve greatly in this area. I believe it may be responsible for losses in recent elections. I perceive there was an ignorance by local and national leaders of the vital importance of effective public relations.

I should add that this particular article is part 1 of a longer diatribe on the issues in political campaigns. The second article will follow at some point, but I need to sit down and work out a plan for it.

From: Sue Wolstenholme, Introduction to Public Relations, (Harlow, England, UK: Pearson Education Limited, 2013), p. 8.

Standardised descriptions of Communication Models include descriptions of one-way communication, examples are Advertising; Propaganda; Marketing; Publicity; Sponsorship; Lobbying and Social Marketing. Public Relations, by contrast, aims to facilitate and enjoy Two-Way Communication. Theoretically, the goal is to “Build mutual understanding for relationships, trust and reputation” (Sue Wolstenholme, Introduction to Public Relations, 2013, p.8).




We must also consider what political parties should be aiming to achieve. Commercial marketing is mass-marketing, but I believe we should be looking more towards Social Marketing. The “conversation” that the 2014 Scottish Referendum started, although volatile at times, seemingly engaged more people. Though evidence may be lacking for that claim and is probably more anecdotally. However, levels of political engagement seem to have decreased since then.

The General Election in 2010 saw a turnout of 2,465,722, that’s 63.8% of registered voters (3,864,768) in Scotland. For the referendum in 2014, the turnout increased to 4,283,392 or 84.59% of registered voters (5,063,710). And in the 2015 General Election, the Scottish turnout was 2,907,296 or 71.1% of registered voters (4,094,784). The 2017 snap General Election saw a turnout of 2,649,695 or 66.4% of registered voters (3,990,505). So whilst these are higher numbers in terms of turnout percentages, there are nearly as few voters registered in 2017 as there were in 2010.

Declining numbers suggests subsequent General Election will see a further fall to below 2010 levels.

2014’s Referendum saw 80.1% of Scotland’s population of 5,347,600 actually vote, with 94.7% registered to vote the total population. These extremely high levels of political engagement did not continue. The question, therefore, needs to be asked, is, why not?

Now whilst it is clear that the referendum of 2014 was a “special time”. And it was an extremely important topic that people got “passionate” about. We can not, and should never deduce reasons to one-issue for the less political engagement comparatively. There will almost always be multiple factors which contribute to the decline. I think one of these is the public relations of all the political parties involved.

I ’walk’ amongst the political parties at a local level, and I watch the national level. My thoughts here, therefore, are primarily observation.

From: Wolstenholme, 2013, p. 9

This table shows the difference between Commercial Marketing and Social Marketing (as defined by Tench and Yeomans). I think the key point to pick from this is that Political Parties need to realise that there is a difference between their mass-political broadcasts and their ’Social Media’ feel. Whilst they must compliment one-another, they can’t be the same. Take for example the ’hip’ Mass-Political broadcast from the Scottish National Party (2018):



Whilst this hip advert sounds like a good idea, it actually seems to have backfired. There were multiple factual inaccuracies. Some of those controversial schemes, e.g. Baby Boxes, are not necessarily things many people actually need or want. Also “Affordable New Homes” is, personally, a ’bit of a’ joke to me. I am yet to meet anyone who can afford those new homes without gaining debt (i.e. a mortgage). Or resort to “the bank of mummy and daddy”. With most of those who can get a mortgage being above a certain age and wage bracket. But that’s a different hobby-horse of mine. So whilst their ’hip’ and ’look what we did’ may work fantastically on Social Media and in Social Marketing, it doesn’t work so well in Commercial (Mass-Media) marketing. As the Social Media sphere seems to suggest, going by some of the tweets from independence supporters. As an example below is just one tweet from an independence supporter:

From: Wolstenholme, 2013, p. 15

I have noticed, primarily at the local level, though this applies slightly wider. There is a tendency to use Social Media such as Facebook and Twitter as a means of “Public Information”. At times they follow a “Press Agency/Publicity Model” (as shown in the table to the right). Whilst this works for the communication of important information by government services, such as the NHS, MoD et al. It is not so effective for Political Parties who are trying to gain your vote. After all, even if you are in power, you’re not the mechanics of “the government” but the political will driving the mechanics. You still need to “keep the people on-side” – propaganda and information dissemination is not an effective means of doing this. For example, I believe the Twitter usage of Scottish Labour borders on the “Public Information” approach, it is not the “feel” they attempt to go for in the campaign materials or their Party Political Broadcasts:

This party political broadcast seems to suggest that Scottish Labour is listening. However, its most ’obvious’ conversant methods are Twitter and Facebook. They rarely seem to reply to comments on these, and this appears to be truer at the local Constituency level. As I commented before, parties need to make sure their whole ’image’ and ’branding’ through the Commercial marketing and social marketing, are the same, and not disjointed. The SNP and Scottish Labour seem to be failing to do this at the moment.

Frankly, any political campaign using anything less than Two-Way Asymmetric Communications doesn’t deserve to win any election.

I believe it is time Political Parties during, before and after campaigns practice at least “Two-Way Asymmetric” if not “Two-Way Symmetric” communication. I say at least because I understand that Two-Way Symmetric communication requires an ideal world, and is largely seen as an impossible goal. However, I contend that actually, political candidates are more able to at least partially achieve “Two-Way Symmetric” Communication, than almost any other type of communicators. If a candidate’s goal is to mutually understand their constituents and also get their constituents to understand the candidate, then two-way symmetric communication is certainly possible. Frankly, any political campaign using anything less than Two-Way Asymmetric Communications doesn’t deserve to win any election.

The first step towards practising two-way asymmetric, if not two-way symmetric communication can be as simple as responding to questions that are asked publicly and privately on Facebook Pages, Twitter Feeds etc. I understand that sometimes questioners are “trolls” or “looking to cause trouble” but political parties need to be able to deal with hecklers taking a less stone-walling approach and instead choosing a “kinder-gentler” way. As part of this movement away from propaganda and public information models of communications, I believe it’s time that political parties run-away from a press-officer mentality and run with open arms towards a ’Relationships and Communications Facilitator’ mentality.