Political PR Lessons from the Brits

While South Carolina’s primary politics were hitting their peak mud-slinging stride, I was lucky enough to be “across the pond” on a long-awaited trip to England. In fact, we landed on Election Day, jet-lagged and wondering what had happened to all the (non-existing) political posters. There might even be some footage of my husband and I taking snapshots of Parliament from the encampment of analysts near Westminster Abbey! (I had to resist an overwhelming urge to talk up the BBC, even though I know nothing of British politics. This PR thing must really be in my blood.)

It’s always interesting to watch the political process unfold in a new place, but we happened to find ourselves in at the conception of Britain’s first “coalition government” since WWII since neither the conservatives nor the liberal democrats could muster a majority. In fact, we were watching for helicopters during the changing of the guard because everyone was convinced the queen would have to return home and settle things over tea. But as David Cameron and Nick Clegg took their first fragile steps as allies, I noted a few lessons we could apply to the political process from the stoic, wordly Brits.

1. Be humbly self-aware. The American political process can be so righteously indignant, which only really leads to bombastic diatribes and hypocritical behavior. But the best moment of new government came when a reporter asked David Cameron at a press conference about previously responding to a question, “What’s your favorite joke?” with the name of Nick Clegg (his newly minted Deputy Prime Minister). Cameron started to reply with a predictable response that everyone in the new government would have previous comments thrown back at them — when he looked over at Clegg and charmingly admitted, “I’m afraid I did,” with an exaggerated “my bad” face. Clegg pretended to walk off the stage, Cameron called “Come back!” and the incident left both politicians looking human and relatable.

2. Know where real power lies. A frequent news topic was the colloquial name of the new government as “Lib-Con” even though the conservatives carried more political weight than the liberals. Too often, American politics equates any concession with defeat. In Britain, however, this was obviously a self-depracating “high road” maneuver by Cameron, and it elicited a tone of respect. Everyone knew Cameron was the real force of the government; conceding a small naming point only solidified that convention in the mind of the public.

2. Be like the BBC. Sprinkled between compelling human interest stories, the BBC provided some of the best, most even-handed coverage I’ve ever seen of the political process. They had thoughtful commentators, top-of-the-minute interviews (on trains!), and even managed to ask relevant questions about the past without insulting viewers’ intelligence. Their reporters were frank, interested and slightly skeptical yet cautiously optimistic, putting a thoughtful face on news with Gothic spires from Parliament peaking over their heads. And they knew when to stop — peppering politics with international coverage and soccer, as if to say, “Yes, politics are important. But life will go on, so let’s all be civil about it.”

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