Winning elections in a pandemic

Alex Walker is Director at Mercury Public Affairs and is Leader of the Milton Keynes Conservatives Group. Follow on Twitter

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an intriguing impact on election results around the world. Some incumbents have stormed home, others have struggled, and some have lost to successful challengers. I have been lucky over the past year to have worked on a number of international campaigns and I have seen first hand how Covid has impacted the public mood in different countries and in very different ways depending on the approach of the candidates, political parties and their message. 

In March 2020, across the world, Covid-19 unsurprisingly stormed onto the list of issues that concerned voters. The fear was real, the lack of understanding of the virus was deeply unnerving and voters were worried about their health and the health of their family. Economic concerns quickly came into play and remain in the most part today, and then more recently the vaccine rollout has been a central priority for voters. 

For incumbents facing an election in such an environment, there is an endless balancing act between effective government communications and incredibly delicate campaigning. I saw this most profoundly working with the Mayor of Kyiv Vitaly Klitschko in the lead up to Ukraine’s municipal election in October 2020. Throughout the campaign, Covid was an extremely fluid issue and there was a consistent and, I’d argue, helpful tension between public health communications and campaigning. What became clear early was that while voters were forgiving of the decisions to implement restrictions, they wanted them to be articulated clearly. Moreover, they wanted to see the Mayor being busy and keeping vital services moving. We brought in daily live streamed daily briefings, we set up an economic recovery council of business leaders and ensured that the Mayor was regularly talking about protecting jobs and income. The Mayor ended up being re-elected with more than 50% of the vote. 

Back home in the local elections in May, the Conservative party benefited greatly from an impressive vaccine rollout. The party leaned into the vaccine bounce with daily updates on the number of jabs in arms and memorable social media graphics for key milestones. The media helped promote the importance of getting jabbed and thousands of people posted their little appointment cards online, essentially acting as micro influencers for the party’s central campaign message. In Milton Keynes, where I led a group of 16 Conservative councillors, we were seeing it on the doorstep, with one colleague being told by a resident: “You have 4 jabs and 2 votes from this household.” Thanks to that narrative and some good local issues, I now lead the largest group on MK Council with 24 brilliant Conservative councillors. And of course, there was success up and down the country. 

A good vaccination programme isn’t a silver bullet, as experienced by Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel’s March elections. Israel has been held up as the world leader for vaccinations, a rollout designed, implemented and well communicated by Netanyahu’s Government. However, working with Naftali Bennet and his new party Yamina, the data was showing many other issues in play: the economy, crime and, above all else, questions over the character of Netanyahu. My colleague George Birnbaum, who first helped Bibi get elected in ‘97 and has been involved in every national election since, identified early that voters were framing the election as pro-Bibi and anti-Bibi. Naftali Bennett, along with parties from the left and right, strengthened the anti-Bibi sentiment and were able to secure enough seats to eventually form a new and historic coalition government.  

I want to finally jump over to Romania and its general election in November 2020. A country dominated by the Socialist Democratic Party (PSD) since the fall of communism. A party that has been dogged with corruption, at times resulting in tragedy as seen in the 2015 Colectiv nightclub fire which saw 64 young people lose their life. A minority Liberal Government had taken over after PSD voted itself out of power in 2019. The Liberal Government had done an impressive job handling the Covid crisis, early to lockdown and build capacity into the health system. Just two months before the election they were riding high in the polls, an 8% advantage over PSD. Could it be that Covid was about to act as an accelerator and end the robust structural vote for the socialists? No. Despite a relatively good campaign from the Liberals and their strong record in government, PSD still returned the largest vote share and secured the largest number of MPs. Thankfully for the Liberals they were able to grab support from a new party USR PLUS and still formed a government. But, it did highlight Covid’s disruptive limits. 

We can be certain that Covid-19 and its impact on elections is not yet over. France’s 2022 Presidential election will be one to watch. The handling of the pandemic will define incumbents’ records whether they want it to or not. When they face their next election, they will need to decide whether they embrace it or try to define their campaign on other issues. As ever, there is no one size fits all strategy, as I have experienced over the last 18 months in which campaigns have aged me dramatically!  

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This piece was written for our website.

2021: A review

Adam Honeysett-Watts, Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications, spoke to Matt Honeycombe-Foster at POLITICO about the future of the industry. The image below includes the comments that were used for his article, otherwise you’ll find the full transcript as a blog post.

Do you predict public affairs/comms industry will carry on with bits of the ‘new normal’ even as Covid comes under control?

Much of what’s taken place over the past nine months has been in the works for a while e.g., living healthier, working remotely, shopping online, leveraging technology and thinking digital.  

What’s happened is the pandemic has accelerated the rate at which governments, organisations and individuals alike were already adapting to new expectations.

You could argue that there’s been – apologies in advance to all PRs and journalists – a turning point, sea change or paradigm shift.  

Even now that we have vaccines, I doubt we’ll return to our old ways of working and living; a lot has happened. We’ve become accustomed to new habits and norms and become more resilient.

That aside, we’re a people industry – our successes are built on networking and relationships; we absolutely need that face-to-face time. That’s certainly true for new start-ups like do Different.

I cannot wait to be able to host in-person events for the PRCA Corporate Group and Conservatives in Communications again soon. Zoom fatigue has certainly crept in.

What were the big lessons of 2020 that are likely to stick?  

1) Trust in your people and partners and ignore all talk of presenteeism.

The key to making remote working work is for managers to trust their colleagues. In turn, all colleagues must deliver – at home and in the office. It’s really that simple. Get it right and the benefits can be a-plenty.

And, I believe people have got it right. They have risen to the challenges posed by the country’s response to the pandemic.  

2) Corporate reputation remains king.

While some functions in communications rise and fall in terms of where they are in the pecking order, corporate reputation management consistently remains among, if not at, the top of the league when it comes to what businesses should prioritise in terms of PR.

Yes, digital and internal communications played a critical role throughout the year – and will continue to do so into 2021 – however, it is reputation – the overall perception of an organisation that is held by is external and internal stakeholders (based on its past and current actions as well as its future behaviour) – where the bulk of investment should be targeted.

What are the main political and policy battles you’re watching out for in 2021?

If you thought 2020 was going to be a wild ride wait until 2021.  

The fight against coronavirus will continue, the impact of Brexit – either with or without a deal – will follow closely behind, the new US administration will push a whole different agenda, the Scottish, local and mayoral elections could be quite challenging for many, the Nationalists will continue to push for another independence referendum and all this while unemployment and debt soars.

Senior leaders need public affairs partners to help promote and defend their business interests, but also PR support to build their brands, earn trust, protect reputation and generate new leads. Advocacy and communications have never been more important. Thankfully, practitioners have demonstrated their value.

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