Six tips for politicians on how to avoid election howlers
The challenge is on to stick to the manifesto script and for campaigners to watch what they eat – and tweet.
With just over two months to go until polling day, the battle for the hearts and minds of the Great British public will be lost or won on our airwaves, digital and print media. But engaging with the media is a hazardous game, as Green Party leader Natalie Bennett found out to her cost during her car crash of an interview on LBC last month.
As a former political journalist who has covered three general elections, I have seen countless careers destroyed by one ill-thought-out comment or tweet.Now poacher turned gamekeeper, my job is to protect reputations. We run a resource centre to promote female experts in the media.
We often get asked by our clients about how to avoid media gaffes. So I have drawn up a list of the top six perils facing candidates during the general election.
Top of the list has to be the policy gaffe. There is no excuse for any politician not to be able to regurgitate their party manifesto from front cover to back. In reality, however, there will be numerous cases of politicians confusing their millions with billions.
During the campaign for the 2001 general election, Oliver Letwin put a bombshell under Conservative policy by expressing an aspiration to curtail future public spending by £20bn a year more than Labour. The shadow chief secretary to the Treasury was famously forced to go into hiding and did not emerge until after the election had finished.
Next up is social media. The perils of Twitter are well documented, but that doesn’t prevent high-profile individuals from risking their careers with one ill-thought-out tweet.
Labour MP Emily Thornberry was forced to resign from the shadow cabinet after tweeting a picture of a home with a white van and St George’s Cross flag during the recent Rochester and Strood by-election.
Even the most seasoned political operators are caught out by the next peril: the live microphone. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s now infamous ‘bigoted’ woman comment to Gillian Duffy during the last general election helped end his chances of returning to Number 10 in 2010.
My personal favourite is the ‘real world quiz’ – a classic journalists’ trick to embarrass politicians by demonstrating that they do not live in the same world as the rest of us. The test is usually thrown in at the end of an interview, like a grenade, by a seemingly harmless local newspaper reporter. Questions go along the lines of “how much is a loaf of bread?” or “what’s the name of [insert local football team captain/manager?]”.
During the 1997 general election campaign, party leaders faced Spice Girls quizzes. Tony Blair, who had listed Say You’ll Be There as one of his ten favourite records of 1996, managed to name three Spice Girls. John Major could only manage to identify two.
Photo ops should also be treated with great caution. Take Ed Miliband and his unfortunate attempt at eating a bacon sandwich, which was captured by a photographer in all its gurning glory.
The rules are simple: don’t eat on camera or dress up in a ridiculous outfit, and check over your shoulder for silly signage.
Finally, you can guarantee that one of our political leaders will have all their best-laid media plans destroyed in an instant by a random member of the great British public – usually a sweet old lady or someone with a harrowing life story.
In 2001, Blair famously saw the Labour manifesto launch derailed by Sharron Storer, a relative of a cancer patient, who ambushed him about conditions in the NHS as he visited a Birmingham hospital.
Kirsty Walker is associate director at iNHouse Communications