Election ennui – is PR to blame for boring campaign?


I have a confession to make, finding the motivation to walk the two minutes from my house to vote in the UK General Election this Thursday may be a struggle.

My sentiments are summed up by Brian Wheeler, the BBC’s political reporter who asks: Is this campaign duller than usual?

His critique is that this has been too carefully stage managed, in part, one deduces by the public relations teams around the various campaigns. It has been hard to identify any strong personality politics, let alone dominance of policy in the bland rhetoric from any of the parties.

The pre-election dominance of Nigel Farage in the headlines (UK Independence party) has been replaced with a bit of a fluster over the SNP (Scottish National Party) leader, Nicola Sturgeon. But she isn’t standing as an MP and talk about a Braveheart surge South of the border depends on a complicated mathematical calculation of ‘what ifs’. And one wonders if we’ve all got the heart to get excited in advance about another Scottish result after last year’s independence referendum.

My feeling is that the following four traditional Ps seem to have lost their power this time around:

Polls – it seems we’ve grown weary of predictions around what might happen, as the potential for almost continuous, cheap online surveys has created overload and a real lack of credibility in anything the pollsters may say. You can even use online Poll Trackers to get a meta-analysis of the various results – which still tells you little about how people may or may not vote (if they can be bothered).

Personalities – rather than strong leadership traits or even narcissistic characteristics, apparently most political candidates have had a personality bypass. It’s like the zombie PR and marketing content curators around them have sucked out anything remotely engaging or interesting. And we’re all too cynical to be impressed by pseudo-stunts that lack any genuinely creative flair. Even the raging (or should that be aging) enfant terrible ‘revolutionary’ comic/actor/whatever, Russell Brand, is unlikely to have the influence the media is trying to claim. Likewise, any other celebrity or ‘influencer’ lending their endorsement to a candidate seems like a cliche.

Publicity – the days when you could unveil an advertising poster and make a difference are long-gone. Again, Brian Wheeler has claimed we’re witnessing the death of political advertising. That old favourite, the door-dropped flyer is hanging on, but apart from the occasional graphic-design faux pas, they are largely forgettable. Indeed, a collection of motley printed leaflets only came through my front door, or to be accurate, arrived as impersonalised mailings with the post, in the past week. And, despite social media being touted to be ripe for this election, nothing has really gained much traction. There is hashtag overload – but with little cut-through from any of the campaigns, media stories or attempts to get some viral interest.

Policies – undoubtedly there’s been a dearth of genuine ideology evident in the campaigns this time let alone much in the way of new ideas or even a strategy that might stimulate some voting interest. Indeed, there don’t seem to be many politicians or supporters out on the streets discussing what they are promising (or arguing against). Admittedly I live in a small village in a safe Conservative constituency (there was a Liberal in the seat in 1923, but that didn’t last long). With a population of a few hundred people our votes probably don’t count for much from even a local, let alone a national perspective. We don’t get the attention of a marginal or swing seat – although last time the majority result was cut in half, it doesn’t seem likely to be overturned. The most interesting fact is that the ballot paper will include King Arthur Uther Pendragon (druid campaigner and eco-warrior), who can’t be accused of lacking in personality, but probably won’t poll very highly.

Is it fair to say that election ennui is the prevailing mood of the nation? Is Wheeler right that it all just too safe, and over-controlled by risk-averse PR handlers? Are modern politicians just Cotton Wool Kids – fearful of doing anything that could generate a negative headline or a Twitterstorm?

I suppose it’s not too late for something to jump out and surprise us all, capturing the headlines and setting social media alight with the speed of an ice-bucket challenge selfie challenge.

Not sure that will really matter though. If you’ve made up your mind, it is unlikely to be changed at the last minute. And if you haven’t? Well, when you pick up the string on the stump of a pencil to make your mark for a single candidate, you will decide based on whatever enters your head at that second. Whether or not it will be influenced by anything you’ve seen or heard about in the past weeks, personal experiences or just gut feel is a matter between you and the ballot box.

The important thing is to vote – you may as well exercise your democratic right even if you feel blasé about the whole thing.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Election ennui – is PR to blame for boring campaign?”

  1. if only the PR around “PR” (proportional representation) had been up to the mark during that referendum, then this campaign would have been very different.

    The sad fact is that your 4P’s don’t count. It isn’t about “personality”- there are shockingly low recognition figures for one’s own constituency MP, but the vote you cast is not for a party leader but yet another faceless, nameless person to most voters. And “polls” don’t count either- they just perpetuate the myth that a national % makes a difference. There are less than 100 marginals in England and this year the “surprise” is that another 45 in Scotland are also now marginal. Only these people will determine which party gets the largest minority- and the rest of us are just wasting our votes.

    And “policies”? Well, there is surprisingly little between them, as party leader after party leader ties their hands in a desperate attempt to be populist. Oh, wait- no one but the voters in the marginals will really be the target of those policies. And when the votes are counted, who knows what policies will stay and which will have to be bartered away?

    Not surprising that it feels “dull”. Is that “public relations’s “fault”?. Don’t shoot the messenger, Heather- we’re not the guilty party.

    The saddest fact is that 7.5 million people threw away their right to vote by failing to register. And so many of those will be young voters. We get the political campaigns that we deserve

  2. Heather, I too share how you feel. I think at a tactical level the points you highlight do feed a lack of engagement. Yet, at a strategic level are there deeper issues. Although I disagree with Russell Brand about not voting, I do agree with him on his underlying meme that we need to be political 24 7 – the £5 you spend on Amazon is a political act.(Check out my blog on Russell Brand http://www.andygreencreativity.com/2015/03/why-russell-brand-needs-better-memes-pr-advice/ )
    AsTerry Gillan the film director observes, that he is a political animal but voting is one of the least effective forms of political activity.
    The issue you raise can only be fully addressed by building a fifth ‘P’ for Political capacity within each of us, rather than just tinkering with our political engagement as bored consumers of parliamentary democracy.

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