The craft of communications and the coming culture war

GUEST POST: Jason MacKenzie is Managing Partner of Corporate Communications at Nudge Factory and Past-President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

We’re neck deep in that Orwellian future. Fake news is the new norm, and effective communicators will win the coming clash between the ‘based’ and the ‘woke’.

If you’re not entirely sure what those two sentences mean, but you’ve got a good idea that this is an important debate, you’re in the majority. We’re familiar with the language of Brexit, and the emotive political discourse leading up to the EU referendum. It’s rooted in an older, simpler paradigm. But we now need greater nuance to navigate the rhetorical battlefields of the future.

The US culture wars started in the 1920s, with the clash between rural and urban American values. The term was rebooted in the 1960s, placed centre stage by disagreements between conservatives and progressives over moral issues, including marriage and abortion.

‘Pro-life’ verses ‘pro-choice’ is a classic example of the framing of an issue. On the face of it, both seem positive and widely acceptable positions to adopt. In reality, they are diametrically opposite. One emphasises the sanctity of life, based on the conviction that human rights begin in the womb, the other prioritises the well-being of a mother over her unborn infant. No one ever describes themselves as ‘anti-choice’ or ‘pro-death’.

American pollster Frank Luntz demonstrates the importance of persuasive language in Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by asking why people dislike big oil.

America’s energy producers have been their own worst enemies…“drilling for oil”…reminds people of Jed Clampett shooting at the ground, conjuring images of liquid black goo gushing into the sky…

The antidote is simple: they replaced ‘drilling for oil’ with ‘energy exploration’ – far more acceptable, at least semantically.

Language matters. Phrasing matters. Framing matters.

Vote Leave won because 17.4 million people understood and embraced ‘Vote leave, take back control’ – most importantly because it encapsulated the underlying message. You could argue that ‘Make America Great Again’ worked for the Republicans in 2016 in the same way, and that ‘Get Brexit done’ delivered an 80-seat majority for the Conservatives six months ago.

But not all air wars are fought by giant industries to reposition themselves, or by political parties to win elections. The coming culture war will be fought on multiple fronts, across social, digital and traditional media, and with myriad voices and factions. While many combatants will simply shout into echo chambers that reinforce their own worldviews, deepening tribalism – others will cut through, and change the way we think, feel and act.

Over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed two major flashpoints. The diehard remain coalition piled pressure on Boris Johnson to sack Dominic Cummings, for actions that Durham Police said “might have been a minor breach of the regulations.” But the Prime Minister’s adviser neither resigned nor was forced out.

The old rules no longer apply. Cummings would not have survived in the pre-Trump era. The US President’s relentless refusal to adhere to convention has crossed the Atlantic. There’s a willingness to stand up to received wisdom, herd mentality and the prevailing media narrative. Whether you believe that this shows craven weakness or bold leadership depends on your worldview and where your loyalties lie.

The second major incident sparked riots, looting, and a torrent of hatred and outrage. The universally-condemned and unjust killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis after being pinned to the floor by police officer Derek Chauvin took place on 25th May. Conservatives, liberals and almost everyone across (and beyond) the political spectrum condemned this instance of police brutality. But from there, narratives and courses of action diverged.

On the one hand, there are calls for law and order to prevail, for justice to be done, and for peace – whether peaceful protesting or other meaningful action. At the other end of the spectrum, anarchic looting and violent protests carried out by the likes of Antifa, the militant left-wing movement. Meanwhile, the middle ground is flooded by virtue-signalling.

Our 52/48 nation will continue to be divided, and social media will play an increasing role as a catalyst, stoking the fires of anger and hatred, and deepening our societal fractures. Even something as innocuous as a blog about whether we need ‘Pride Month’ by young, gay Conservative activist Darren Grimes provoked a furore. “I find it utterly depressing that the pride flag now takes pride of place in our national life over our own national flag” he wrote for Conservative Home. Rather than welcoming debate and the free exchange of ideas, he was pilloried on Twitter, rebutted by PinkNews, and the post was ‘cancelled’ by Facebook.

Free speech is vital for democracy. When social media platforms behave more like publishers, exercising censorship and editorial control, they need to be treated as such. Digital acts of ‘no platforming’ such as ‘temporarily restricting’ Twitter parody account @TitaniaMcGrath, smack of censorship and conscious mass manipulation. This is what the founding father of public relations, Edward Bernays might have called “the engineering of consent”.

Identity politics is here to stay. Tribalism is getting deeper. Truth (and underlying trust in our institutions) is more evasive than ever. That’s why professional communications, precise language and persuasive discourse are needed now more than ever. In the court of public opinion, the most powerful arguments will win. Let’s hope that democracy, decency and common sense prevail.

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This piece was written for our website.

Tories in Comms marks first anniversary since relaunch

Invites supporters to complete inaugural survey, including reaction to Covid-19 strategy

Conservatives in Communications (CiC), the independent and informal industry network for professionals, marks one year since the group was relaunched.

The network now boasts almost 400 supporters from a variety of backgrounds. Iain Anderson and Kulveer Ranger are among those providing business expertise as industry patrons, while circa 20 peers and MPs – largely from the 2010, 2015 and 2019 intakes – form a new tier of parliamentary patrons who represent a number of different interests.

Katie Perrior, chair of iNHouse Communications and a former Director of Communications at No.10, remains as figurehead of the group. Adam Honeysett-Watts – with the support of Aisha Vance-Cuthbert and Alec Zetter – manage day-to-day operations. Finley Morris was recently brought on to develop and drive its dedicated youth effort.

The network has organised a number of events in Westminster and off Fleet Street, including a Q&A with the Home Secretary Priti Patel MP and a panel discussion about lessons learned from the general election campaign, featuring Sir Robbie Gibb, Professor Matthew Goodwin and Paul Goodman of ConservativeHome.com. BECG, Ellwood Atfield and Kekst CNC sponsored them.

In addition, the group has an active industry blog and circulates regular e-newsletters; the latest of which encourages supporters to participate in its inaugural survey: Conservatives in Communications (CiC) Census 2020. The census is being billed as a “once-a-year opportunity to provide feedback, so we can better serve you and add more value going forward.”

The survey comes at a critical time for the industry as professionals get to grip with Covid-19. It includes questions about the government’s communications strategy, current and future slogans, highly rated Cabinet ministers, future televised press briefings, trustworthiness of the media, flexible working and work from home (WFH) schemes, and an optimism tracker.

Adam Honeysett-Watts, Principal Director, said:

“We’ve made good progress towards our mission to be a more dynamic, proactive, diverse and transparent industry resource. That said, there is much more we could and should be doing – when it comes to getting more women involved – so, we look forward to analysing the results, determining priorities and acting on them over the next year.”

For more information, including how to sign-up for events, email us. The findings are expected to be published in late May.

Different journeys, same end destination

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector.

I have written before about my early-life journey from picturesque Beverley – one of the North’s best-kept secrets (and where 59% of voters opted to leave the European Union) – to East Anglia (some 69% voted the same way) where, aged 18 I moved to study politics, including European culture and identity. It is a period of my story which made me develop an understanding for my fellow countrymen’s Euroscepticism.

Yet, sometime during the ensuing decade, I developed a healthy respect for the EU. I attribute this to working in the City and city breaks in European capitals. And so, in 2016, I joined the 79% of South Londoners in Lambeth by voting to remain in the EU. I understand, therefore, why some people, including fellow Tory Reform Group members, questioned my early support and subsequent enthusiasm for Boris Johnson – for he, perhaps more than anyone else involved, advocated for Vote Leave.

Let me set out why I believe our end destination, under Johnson’s leadership, is more important than the journeys we are on – and how I eventually arrived there.

Our relationship with the EU is quite complex. I believed, rightly so, that it is a relationship of such complexity that it cannot be boiled down into one question in a ballot. I also believed – and feared – that a vote on this issue had the potential to split the Conservative Party and the country. Like George Osborne, this was one of those rare occasions when I disagreed with David Cameron because I couldn’t support the call for a referendum on the EU. However, when, in 2015, the Tories unexpectedly achieved a majority, and with no coalition partners to block one, a referendum became inevitable and the campaigns to leave and remain began in earnest.

At that point, I decided to campaign for Conservatives IN. However, the campaign to remain lost and the campaign to leave won. The EU referendum question, while simplistic, was clear. We have since discovered that though leave means quite different things to different people, the decision to leave was made. As such, the discussion moved to how we would build national consensus to deliver on the result of the referendum and help move our country forward.

Except, that didn’t happen. Theresa May made virtually no effort to engage the 48%. This time, as a means of finding consensus, I subscribed to The New European and found myself agreeing with Conservatives for a People’s Vote albeit I prefer the slightly more accurate term ‘confirmatory ballot’. However, Parliament has voted against one and polling indicates that the people do not want one.

One constant throughout these past four years has been the failure of the remain and remoan camp to run an effective operation and win enough support.

There comes a time when we need to accept where we are and recognise the need to move forward and give businesses the certainty they are asking for. Brexit is an important issue, but it should not be an all-consuming and indefinite issue at the expense of other priorities which shape people’s lives. Driven by this pragmatism, it didn’t take much to throw my support behind Johnson – a two-term mayoral winner in Labour London – as the man to take responsibility, own this and make a go of it in the national interest. It is a pragmatism which TRG and other membership organisations should applaud. We need to leverage Johnson’s qualities to win for the nation and shape a better future for all – leavers and remainers alike. After we have reached destination Brexit, we need Johnson’s Conservatives to take on Jeremy Corbyn, Sadiq Khan and the remaining loony left. Our society should be about freedom, individual responsibility and community. It’s time to move on and move forward.

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by ConservativeHome.com (‘I voted Remain and backed a second referendum. But here’s why I now back Johnson’ – September 10, 2019), The Commentator (‘Brexit: Different journeys, same end destination’ – August 27, 2019) and The Yorkshire Post (‘I voted Remain but now back Boris Johnson over Brexit’ – September 16, 2019). It was syndicated on BrexitCentral (September 10, 2019).

Boris set to write our next chapter

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector. 

Before this leadership election got underway, I wrote that the next leader must be able to tell the Tory story – of aspiration and opportunity – and identified Boris Johnson as the person best-positioned to do that.

Having previously supported David Cameron and then Theresa May, I like to think I back winners – at least, in terms of those who reach the top. That said, while the former will be remembered for rescuing the economy – while giving people the power to marry who they love and an overdue say on Europe – the latter, much to my disappointment, has no real legacy. Johnson should avoid repeating that mistake.

His final column for the Daily Telegraph, ‘Britain must fire-up its sense of mission’, was jam-packed with the kind of Merry England (or Merry UK) optimism that we experienced during the Cricket World Cup and that the whole country needs right now: “They went to the Moon 50 years ago. Surely today we can solve the logistical issues of the Irish border”. Quite right.

You’ve guessed it, I’m chuffed that Conservative MPs, media and members supported Johnson’s bid to become our Prime Minister. I’m looking forward to May handing him the keys to Number Ten and him batting for us after three, long years of doom and gloom. Sure, optimism isn’t everything – but it can set the tone. A detailed vision must be articulated and executed by a sound team.

Whichever side you were on before the referendum (or are on now), in the short term, we need to redefine our purpose, move forward with our global partners, unite the UK – and defeat Corbynism.

Mid-term, we should invest further in our national security and technology, improving education and life chances and encouraging greater participation in culture and sport, as well as boosting home ownership. Plus the odd tax cut here and there would be well-advised.

However, we must not put off having debates – for fear of offending – about controlling immigration and legalising drugs, and about funding for health and social care, as well as protecting the environment, for these issues matter and will matter even more in the future.

We should also avoid the temptation to ban political expression, alternative media and sugary foods, and celebrate instead free speech, press freedom and the right to choose.

Again, I look forward to Johnson peddling optimism and hope that people get behind him, because, ultimately, he will write our next chapter – and if we jump onboard and provide support, much more can be achieved by us all working together.

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This piece was written for ConservativeHome.com (July 24, 2019) and has been republished by Politicalite (‘Boris set to write Britain’s next chapter’ – July 24, 2019) and The Commentator (‘Boris brings the sunshine’ – July 28, 2019).

The next leader must be able to tell the Tory story

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

On Wednesday, a group of storytellers – who just so happen to be Conservative supporters – met at the Ellwood Atfield Gallery in Smith Square to hear from Katie Perrior about her time in Number 10, and to explore the purpose of, and indeed future for, the Party.

Perrior served as Theresa May’s PR chief right up until when the 2017 election was called (when May was 24 points up in the national polls). And a fascinating story and exchange of ideas it was for the 100 or so guests – in-house and agency PR and public affairs specialists plus current and former special advisors and CCHQ staffers – who turned up for the relaunch of Conservatives in Communications, which Perrior now chairs.

I won’t spill the beans on what was said, but I do want to share some brief thoughts, based on my experiences, as a way of demonstrating the value that those of us in this network can bring to future leadership campaigns and potentially in government.

I was born in Beverley and grew up in Hull, listening to the band Beautiful South. At just six years of age, my mum died of breast cancer, and shortly after my sixteenth birthday – while finishing my GCSEs – I became an orphan when my dad passed away suddenly. I knew I had a stark choice: to sink or swim. I chose to study – to pursue a career, and to work weekends – so that I could afford to live.

After a much-needed move away from home and positive three years at the University of East Anglia, I jumped on a train to the Beautiful South and began searching for full-time employment – just as signs of a global financial crisis were beginning to emerge. I settled for a life in PR, enhancing the perception of the finance sector and promoting the technology needed to progress it.

Why am I telling you this? The backdrop was an unpopular Tory government under John Major, followed by years in the political wilderness for the Conservatives. And all because of a failure by a succession of people to tell the Tory story of aspiration and opportunity that I knew existed.

In short, the Party didn’t have a convincing narrative and failed to connect with the British electorate which resulted in three consecutive victories for Tony Blair.

Despite the nationalisation of Northern Rock and RBS, and everything else that was happening, David Cameron was unable to secure a majority and ended up forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Whatever your thoughts about those years in power (and mine are positive), there’s no doubt in my mind that George Osborne’s management of the economy, together with strategic and disciplined messaging, helped the Tories to victory in 2015: it was all about, and I apologise in advance, that Long Term Economic Plan.

Confidence in the economy picked up, businesses performed well, and as a result hired new staff, from which I and others subsequently benefited. Fast forward four years and, wow, has the situation reversed. Whichever side you were on before the referendum (or are on now), there’s no doubt in my mind that Brexit is consuming everyone’s time and preventing us from getting on with more important things – and articulating that work.

As the leadership contenders begin to set out their stalls, let’s judge their ability to tell the Tory story – and during that process, where it’s required, I’m sure you’ll see the influence of Conservatives in Communications.

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This piece was written for ConservativeHome.com (May 10, 2019).