The Labour Party’s final conference before the next General Election – and perhaps its last as Government for the next few years – begins on Monday. How will the party hope to engage with the electorate and stave off what looks now like an inevitable defeat? PR Media Blog spoke to Kerry McCarthy, recently appointed new media campaigns spokeswoman about how the social media sphere is influencing Labour’s communications.
If New Labour will be forever associated with anything in the English language, it will be the phrase “on message” and the word “spin”.
Tight, centralised control of communications and an unfortunate habit of using the ugly face of public relations to manipulate the truth has peppered much of New Labour’s time in power.
And while US congressman, Joe Wilson, recently caused a furore when he shouted “You lie!” at President Obama mid-speech, such an outburst against Tony Blair – if it had happened – following the exposure as fiction of the Iraq “dodgy dossier” would probably have been roundly applauded in the Commons.
This year’s Labour “Smeargate” scandal and the ensuing departure of government advisers, Damien McBride and Derek Draper, raised questions about Labour’s relationship with dirty tricks in the communications department.
But the party’s new media campaigns spokeswoman, Kerry McCarthy – or “Twitter Tsar” – believes that by embracing social media, Labour is making itself both more transparent and accountable.
Speaking of Smeargate, she says: “It was a tricky period. It was wrong, the ideas that were being kicked around – we don’t need to stoop to that level.”
But she also laments the growth of what she describes as “right wing blogs”: “I would be quite depressed if we had need for a Guido Fawkes on our side. The difficulty with blogs like that, and Iain Dale’s, is that they are not elected politicians and they would be held up to certain standards if they were. We haven’t got sites spreading smears about people.”
Yet the idea that Labour might lean on a Labour blogger who was writing scandalous copy is not the case, says McCarthy: “If it was a keen, young activist we wouldn’t have any control over it. But I don’t think it’s a control freak thing to say we think it’s wrong and unprincipled. We don’t want the Labour Party tarnished with this.”
But how does a party with a history of autocratic control over communications relinquish its rule? “You can’t control it in the way Labour controlled the message in 1997 and afterwards. The news agenda has changed,” she says. “News is so much more rapid and also there is the commentary from a myriad of voices. The issues are all over the blogosphere and Twitter and it would be obvious if politicians are parroting soundbites. If you have got lots of different media outlets there is more chance that truth will come out. Stories get another life online.
“And [social media] is also about how [politicians] respond to people when they are challenged. Getting into debates [online] there is no way you can dictate that from the behind the scenes.”
But at a time when Labour is trailing in the polls and needs clarity about why people should vote for them, isn’t the idea of MPs having countless, public conversations in social networks counter productive? McCarthy says: “Though politicians might have differing views on things, what comes through are the underlying principles and values.”
She draws a comparion between Labour’s immersion in social media and what she sees as the Tories’ reluctance: “I think it will be difficult for the Tories as it will be the maverick voices and the wilder elements of the party that will stand out”.
Labour is experimenting with different social media activities, including a way of using Twitter to make grass roots activists feel more included in debates at party conferences.
But is there a risk that Labour positioning itself as the “social media party” will detract from the real issues the public care about? “We’ve been careful about this,” says McCarthy, “as there’s nothing worse than politicians trying to be trendy. Authenticity is important and people will see if we are using it as a gimmick.
“Twitter is a two-way thing and it’s done in public, reaching a much wider audience. Politicians can be held more accountable so it is a useful tool.”
But how significant will social media be in helping Labour to victory in 2010? “It’s not the magic bullet that will win the election; it’s a small part of getting across the message but will help in getting activists enthused.” She notes that the need for door step campaigning and getting face-to-face with voters has not gone away.
And how does she juggle social media with the day job? “I’ve got 101 ideas for blog posts but it’s having the time to sit down and do them. With Twitter you can do it in a couple of minutes while you’re in the middle of something else.”
Jon Clements is a Chartered PR consultant specialising in B2B PR, corporate and marketing communications and is the founder of Metamorphic PR.