Elections are poor public relations

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.

Another issue has currently beset the CIPR with a need to re-run the 2014 Presidential election and claims that the two candidates who stood may withdraw.

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.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

5 thoughts on “Elections are poor public relations”

  1. Fascinating post Heather with a lot to think about so I’ll just offer a few brief observations:

    1) As one who was involved in the PCC elections and have spoken to others who ran campaigns (from more than one party) I’d say one of the biggest factors behind low turnout was lack of communications. Unlike general, by-elections and European elections candidates were denied a freepost mail drop to every household. The huge size of the constituencies made it virtually impossible to deliver leaflets to every house let alone do proper door knocking or phone calling. It was too expensive to print leaflets and a small number of volunteers had less time to do the work (dark nights and bad weather meant shorter campaign days). This meant many households received either just one leaflet from one party or even no communications from any.

    2) Ironically I believe lack of communication was a big factor in the low turnout for the CIPR elections. My campaigning for council election was limited to contacting people I already knew and could hopefully already count on for support. I was right on counting on them for support, but about half weren’t even aware the CIPR was holding elections.

    3) Overly complex rules. Totally agree, both the CIPR and the PCC elections were burdened with strict barriers to entry. In the PCC elections many of the earliest selected and strongest candidate had to withdraw because of misdemeanour’s in their youth which were so minor they could still do nearly anything else, including be prime minister or home secretary!

    4) Representative democracy frequently doesn’t give the people what they want. Depending on your opinion on a particular issue this might be a good thing or bad thing. For example on women bishops the ‘public’ is in favour, but the small number of elected lay representatives were against. A bad thing. On the death penalty the ‘public’ is in favour, but elected representatives (MPs) are against. A good thing.

    Representative democracy can therefore deter people from voting as they don’t see it as giving them what they personally want.

  2. Well, if democracy is bad public relations, I say, stuff public relations. I’d rather have democracy – poor or otherwise – than no democracy and good public relations (“my people love me”, said the dictator; who never asked his people to turnout and prove it on a rainy day in a free and fair election). The real problem is that PR pros have no idea how to relate or influence and engage the public. (in fact today, PR pros often don’t pretend to the leg work – it’s all based on Algorithms and neuro-science governing/nudging us subconsciously because persuasion/debate and even conversation is out of fashion).

    That said, along with Stuart Bruce, I agree with you about a number of your insights….over complex rules, ruling out people with youthful bad behaviour (a democracy of saints? Piss off!). I also accept your point about disengagement posing a real problem.

    But on Women Bishops… the church has a right to decide its own course… the fact that people like me, non-(lapsed) christians, who constitute the majority in terms of practice within society – favour equality, has nothing and should have nothing to do with how the CoE run its own affairs: see also my posts on FIFA (if members can’t decide then who can?) etc. Otherwise let’s get stuck into the Muslims, as if we – the majority – have a right to tell them how their religion should be practiced and interpreted – say when it comes to burning the Koran in public or private (which while no big deal for the majority of us, requires respect for Muslims in terms of our acceptance of what it means to them…which is why we should honour the integrity for their sacred texts absolutely).

    I don’t quite get your point here, Heather.

    1. My point Paul is stated clealy in my 4th paragraph: modern elections are poor public relations. I am reflecting on elections in relation to democracy and how when they are poorly run they affect relations with publics (which may mean members in many cases) and those who have the responsibility to enable this aspect of democratic engagement.

      Regarding your final paragraph, the Church may well have a right to determine its own course, as does CIPR, but if they are democratic organizations within a democratic country, others outside are entitled to reflect on their processes. Same way that in the UK we can reflect upon, and respect, Muslim culture. That’s something which cannot happen in non-democratic cultures certainly.

      One key aspect of any democracy should be the encouragement of debate, which as I also thought I’d argued is a problem with man of the elections I’d mentioned.

  3. As ever Heather, a thought provoking post! The VMM (and the common sense PR that underlies it) suggest that the problem of elections is always engagement, but that engagement is a phased approach. First and most important, one needs to be aware. In the case of the police commissioner vote, the inability of candidates to get their message out to the voters inevitably led to a low turn out; even when you were motivated to seek out the info, it was hard to see a difference. Hitching onto the free postal drop during a local, national or MEP election could have helped enormously there. Of course even when one is aware and knowledgeable, there is a need for PR people to secure interest, if they expect preference and then action.

    Your point about the CIPR elections is an interesting one- as a member for over 25 years, and a newly elected fellow, I should have voted but did not, because I could not detect in the official candidate material any recognition of the issues that actually affected me as a PR academic and professional. So, despite awareness and knowledge, low interest due to inability to find a preference = no action on voting. (Classic VMM analysis) Part of the issue is that the CIPR does not run elections, it runs selections- in short, the prerequisite of being a council member for years, then a president elect for a year means that only a particular kind of practitioner is going to choose to run. And I have little in common with them and their interests!

    This is the habitual problem of democratic institutions- the candidates are never actually representative, so a sense of engagement is difficult to engender. And I am speaking from personal experience here, having been an election agent in a national UK election.

    So, yes, I do think that democratic institutions have an issue with their relations with their publics. Taking a leaf out of the VMM might encourage more to see how to actually engage with their publics, pushing through awareness, to knowledge, to interest, to preference and then onto the action of voting. Of course, the problem is that the first past the post concept means that democratic elections are actually dis-incentivised from growing engagement. If you can win power on a turnout as low as 9% why bother to work any harder? As the saying goes, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas!

  4. Catherine – thanks for your insightful analysis. I’m always a bit cautious of the classic hierarchy of effective model of communications, but agree that at the least, an understanding of where and how to connect with people (both with push and pull information) and our motivations to both stand and vote should be considered by anyone running an election.

    With CIPR, I agree about the requirement to be Council for at least 3 years (plus the president elect, president, and past president commitment) and so forth is a barrier to both anyone standing and the election process. There is no natural connection even with electing candidates for Council. I understand from a LinkedIn discussion that Council (which comprises 50 or so people currently) may be trimmed of the regional and sector group heads. I understand the logistical reasons, but their involvement provided some connection with people we may know either locally or from our sector participation.

    I would like to see the current issue leading to a real discussion around governance and participation of members in the running of CIPR so that we can now create a modern process without barriers and with greater knowledge of what goes on in the meetings etc.

    A basic responsibility of anyone running a democratic organisation ought to be engagement not simply managing the process of an election within existing rules and to simply get the next turkey into the oven!

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