An election may seem to be the essence of democracy – with public participation in a decision making process demonstrating engagement and a method of the majority selecting who they wish to represent them within a particular system.
As such, it ought to be good public relations – a time of relationship building, consideration of well-made arguments, co-orientation around issues of common consent and an opportunity for the views of the masses to be considered by those seeking office.
There is a belief that this is a fair approach, when a public is able to convey a consensus behind a candidate of choice.
But in reality, it would seem that modern elections are often poor public relations for a number of reasons.
First, there is the question of suffrage – who is eligible to vote. In the UK, there is a current controversy over enfranchising prisoners, something the European Union has ruled for and which the government opposes. Throughout history public relations campaigns have been necessary (although not necessarily called that) to campaign for extension of voting rights – whilst at the same time, practitioners have worked for those opposing greater universality. The lack of voting rights excludes certain publics – and often their voices and issues, from being recognised as important in a system.
Voting rights may also be restricted in some organisations which undertake elections, such as to those who have served a length of time as a member. Again, this can be understandable, but also creates a barrier to this public’s engagement.
Second, the process of standing for election can be complicated with a number of rules presenting obstacles to those who may wish to be involved. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) has a rather complex process. For example, to stand as President-Elect (that is, a full year prior to becoming President), a candidate much have served three years on either the Council or Executive Board. There are various possible routes to join the Council – with the Executive Board membership elected by the Council.
Although such processes can ensure a level of knowledge or commitment, they also slow down the participation of younger or newer members, and possibly more radical thinkers, within an organisation. More complicated, or opaque, processes can also be viewed as supporting a self-perpetuating oligarchy in any organisation.
This election, as with the recent Police Commissioner election, had a really low turnout. In the CIPR case, 9% of members voted – which means that the initially-successful candidate’s claims of receiving 54% of membership support is not strictly true.
Voter apathy or disengagement is the third reason why such elections can be considered as poor public relations. If we cannot be persuaded to take the simple action of casting a vote, then it is debatable whether our views are represented in any election.
There are many suggestions regarding why publics may choose not to vote – and lots have been proposed for the Police Commissioner elections (where around 16% of people voted), leading to a formal inquiry. These include the time of year, bad weather, lack of support for the idea – or perhaps because it is an unfamiliar development, as well as criticisms that little information was presented to the public about candidates. As public relations is involved in communications, this is another reason why elections can be considered poor.
It has never been easier to access information – and conduct low-cost campaigns – but this also means communications need to cut through an increasing amount of clutter surrounding us. Increasingly communications also rely on pull mechanisms, such as information on websites requiring an active approach to access. And, let’s not forget there is still a significant digital divide with many sections of any public lacking either the skills or easy access to such information. It can also seem ironic that we are expected to research information online, but prohibited from voting using modern online or mobile methods.
My final reason regarding why elections are poor public relations can be drawn from yesterday’s vote by the Church of England general synod which rejected the appointment of women bishops. Many of the above arguments (such as a complex process requiring a two-third’s majority which was rejected by six votes) apply.
In addition, we can add in the role of values and existing opinion as guiding decision making. People do not consider the merits of any candidate in isolation. This makes it hard for public relations campaigns to present a new viewpoint or seek to change opinions. Information is processed against an existing cognitive framework, which social judgement theory indicates means information may be rejected as unworthy of even considering.
As I wrote recently at PR Conversations, this means people often reject things they find objectionable or which do not fit with their existing world view.
In the case of the women bishops election, this has further created a negative impression among many members of the wider public outside the church, as well as annoying a significant proportion of those within it, and opinion leaders. It therefore, has a damaging reputational impact, which again is poor public relations.
So what could be done to improve the public relations consequences of an election?
Easier and more transparent processes that engage as many members of the voting public as possible would seem one step. Enhanced communications, which can be presented in a way to overcome existing prejudices – possibly originating from a trusted neutral source – could also be considered.
It seems to me that something certainly needs to be done to review current election processes as they rarely seem to offer good public relations, let alone a sense of fairness befitting of democratic systems.