Follow the Leader for Politicians and Corporations?

What can corporate communicators learn from the general election when it comes to persuasion and thought leadership? The argument for prioritising messenger over message isn’t clear cut.

With the shock of a snap election starting to wane, attention is now turning to the real business of politics – party in-fighting, policy flip flops and, most importantly, the ruthless pursuit of power. The next six weeks will undoubtedly feature their fair share of mud-slinging, salacious scandal and desperate stunts (can anyone surpass the EdStone?).

If the polls are to be believed (and that’s a big if, given previous failures to predict Brexit and Trump’s election win), it’s unlikely anything can avert a Tory landslide. Not even Theresa May confessing to drinking William Hague’s famous 14 pints before Cabinet meetings would do it. But the seeming inevitability of the election outcome won’t prevent a forensic analysis of manifestos, speeches and campaigning techniques.

So, what can corporate communicators learn from the general election when it comes to persuasion and thought leadership?

The use and impact of new communications tools will be interesting to see. The Labour Party may follow President Trump’s lead and bypass a sceptical traditional media by using Twitter to secure public support directly. There could be parallels here for challenger brands looking to break the media stranglehold of industry ‘monopolies’. (In Corbyn’s case, however, many would see this strategy as further evidence of his retreat into an echo chamber of supporters.)

What’s likely to be far more influential is the outcome of the battle between the message and the messenger. Brexit and the US presidential election showed that the strongest messenger often overcomes the objectively powerful message in political campaigns. If this continues, Corbyn’s chances may become even slimmer, given how far he trails May in public perception as a credible prime minister.

But business should tread carefully when tempted to focus on personality (messenger) over content (message). The election is an infrequent opportunity (usually once every five years) where candidates are driven to win at almost any cost. Promises and pledges made while electioneering can be relatively easily dismissed as part and parcel of politics and posturing. In contrast, as a business, you will be held to account every day, so you better make sure you’re authentic, trustworthy and fulfilling the promises you made at the start.

People are also culturally primed to engage in the election – in fact, many feel honour bound to vote – even though voter fatigue is likely to affect turnout. In business, on the other hand, people really can just ignore your marketing if it doesn’t speak to them and solve their problems.

As arguably the most credible messenger in this election, Theresa May might win by essentially saying nothing. That’s not a route corporates can take. The general election is a three or four horse race (if you’re happy to bet each way), and several of the mounts appear out of condition right now. In contrast, your customers can defect to a myriad of viable competitors, so simply being the least bad option isn’t such a good strategy for businesses.

So, the argument for prioritising messenger over message isn’t as clear cut when it comes to business communications. And, as odd as it may seem, how companies present and demonstrate their vision and values could be more, rather than less, important in a corporate context than a political one.

Jon Bennett

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