I must have attended around twenty Labour Party conferences over the years, first as an activist, then as a party staffer and spin doctor, and then as a lobbyist. Not an evolution that will play well with the average member clapping delightedly at Jeremy Corbyn’s speech yesterday and celebrating “getting our party back”.
(Back from who? The Blairite control freaks? The voters? Worth bearing in mind that Labour members may have elected Corbyn, but voters elected Labour MPs, most of whom regard Corbyn and their potential political oblivion with horror.)
While he was speaking back home in the UK, I was giving a speech on public relations, truth telling and reputation at the excellent IPRA Congress in Jo’burg. Big themes of the event and the many great presentations were the death of spin, and the need for authenticity, dialogue and real engagement by business and business leaders.
One senior in house Corporate Communications Officer I interviewed for my talk had commented on the irony of PR people being dubbed spin doctors by journalists when it was often us trying to seek out and tell the truth, a truth often then “spun” by reporters to reflect their or their proprietors world view. I am sure Corbyn’s team will be feeling the same way as they sift through today’s headlines.
A similar theme was playing out back home it seems. Commenting on Corbyn’s debut, The Guardian had this to say:
“With his overwhelming support from party members, Mr Corbyn has earned the right to do things differently and in his own way. Today he did both. His speech trashed almost the entire playbook of modern media-savvy political orthodoxy, with no conventional clap lines, few soundbites, and in all likelihood not a single focus-group-tested theme.”
Mea culpa. There is some truth to the assertion that Corbyn’s election by the majority of Labour members and three quid texters was a big “fuck you” to the years of careful message management, a formidable media machine and even “control freakery” that has its roots back in the 80′s when I went to work for Peter Mandelson on Labour’s press team, a time of horror at Labour’s near annihilation in 1983 and the start of the long road back to electability. Yes we did focus groups, yes we used modern marketing techniques, yes we put voter friendly faces on TV and kept vote frighteners on a leash. Guilty as changed. And yes, maybe it all went a bit too far.
So is there a similarity between the way Corbyn is trying to do things differently, be the antithesis of spin, and what we were talking about far away in sunny South Africa?
On the surface yes. People want authenticity, from brands and CEOs and politicians. They want to be talked by humans, not pre programmed marketing machines churning out key messages and soundbites. Human to human communications,
People are more savvy, sceptical. People are more connected and resistant to being talked at and down to, including by the media who they often distrust as much as they distrust business, governments and institutions.
So is Corbyn just trying to do what enlightened CEOs and brands are trying to do? Be authentic? Connect?
To a point Lord Copper.
The best CEOs engage internally and externally. (At Weber Shandwick we have researched these trends and our “CEO Reputation Premium” report is available on our various websites.) Corbyn is engaging internally with those who elected him. But the Labour conference, and God knows I have experienced my share of them, is just a physical incarnation of the Twittersphere echo chamber. It’s not the real world. That is outside the conference hall. Voters. The “customers” of politics.
Customers want authenticity and engagement, but they also want products and services that work and make their busy complex lives better. Time will tell if a Corbyn led Labour Party will deliver those as opposed to another new style of politics and making elements of the party feel good about themselves again for a while.