Dominic Cummings

It must have felt “strong” and “decisive” and a thoroughly good thing in the bear pit of Westminister- but I am not so sure it was “a good look” when it comes to the general public.

Before I say why, let’s be guided by the science – this is compulsory in all briefings these days, of course.

Daniel Kahneman’s great book – Thinking fast and slow-  starts with a picture of a human face. He explains that we are quickly and instinctively drawn to faces (for primitive reasons of survival) and have a highly developed ability to decode all the complex meanings of faces. We have an innate sense of whether someone is comfortable in their own skin or anxious, sincere or mendacious, depressed or energized and so on.

Faces can be your fortune and they can also be your downfall

The BBC’s current high levels of approval is partly attributed to a cast of homely and familiar faces of people that we instinctively warm to – like Hugh Edwards, Sofie Rayworth , George Alagiah and Clive Myrie. The BBC do not have to guess at our feelings towards its talent as they use audience research and can shuffle their cast accordingly, bringing forward the characters we like and moving others into the background. Toughs are allowed – like Andrew Niel and Emily Maitlis- but they are parked in low ratings slots like Newsnight. You would not have them fronting up the big rating shows like News at Six.

Politicians have to cope with over-exposure

We are going to be seeing a lot more of Boris Johston (whether he or we like it or not). We cannot but help develop instincts, from his demeanour, for what he is really like (which is the key lesson from Daniel Kahneman). His easy-going like-ability will be daily exposed by the rigours of government – which is complex, unpredictable and very hard work. How long before we intuit that he is not really in his natural domain?  It took us a while to work out Tony Blair – but in the end his boundless vanity was exposed by wanting to look like the global player alongside George Bush. With Boris Johnston it will be quicker is my guess. The point here is that Sir Kier does not need to spell this out. He just needs to ask the right questions

Helpful notes for Sir Kier ?

“I would have sacked Dominic Cummings” he said, several times. But, for most of us, this is a very ugly statement. Many people who hear it will have been on the receiving end of job loss- a horrible feeling.  Much better to call on common humanity and suggest that an honourable man would have done the decent thing by now rather expose his boss to reputational damage. We can work out the rest.

Besides Sir Kier does not need  be in the business of calling for sackings ( or very rarely) – others will do it for him. Spend just a few minutes scanning through twitter and you will find a host of would be executioners – some of them putatively from Cummings own party. The twitterati feed on the general media, who feed on the twitterati and soon you have a media storm baying for blood. This, too, is humanity at its most ungenerous.

No Sir Kier should distance himself from the Twitter/Media/Westminister bear pit. This is difficult if you are caught up in the middle of it. But remember, most of us are not obsessively scanning twitter to see what the likes of  Piers Morgan or Alistair Campbell have to say. We intuitively see through the neediness of these characters, whose self esteem seems to derive from being important and listened to.

Strangely, Sir Kier should take a leaf of  the book of ” Early Corbyn” , who used to read out questions asked by the general public in The House of Commons. He dropped this technique- but the sentiment was right.

In my experience of running research groups, the general public are quite balanced, unlike the more deranged twitterati, and accept human frailty as the norm. Cummings has made a mistake, we all make mistakes- he did not start a war. Some people are still angry but most of us are bored of it (and of the people who are trying to keep the story going, mainly for political reasons, with industrial quantities righteous indignation).

If Sir Kier is struggling to stay connected to the mood of the general public-which can happen to the most grounded folk when in the Westminister bubble- then he could take a leaf out of the book of Early Blair. It was much sneered back then, but his strategists made regular use of focus groups to stay in touch with general public’s mood. He won three elections.

 

 

 

I am becoming one of those people who shouts at the TV screen.

(I suppose it was inevitable – it comes with age along with hair sprouting unattractively from ears and nose and busy eyebrows. I haven’t developed the full Denis Healey – but i can see the direction of travel).

My ire is aimed at the commentariat who come on Newsnight, who seem to be mostly in a state of moral outrage. Cue plenty of pomposity and posturing about what the government does from groping to proroguing parliament – and in particular Dominic Cummings.

Cummings is often presented as an evil genius. He is not – he is just an advertising strategist with an effective communications idea.

If Newsnight was to invite branding and advertising experts onto their sofas they could lay it out more analytically for the viewers. But they tend to prefer journalists who are good at understanding todays headlines (and the nerdy details of today in parliament) but poor at the techniques of developing a long term brand positioning. Besides Journalists of the BBC type tend to look down their noses at Adfolk.

This is a pity because advertising strategists are not prone to either moral outrage or bien pensant snobbery. Rather, they deal with people as they really are and work back from there. Lets try that then:-

Start with human truths

People are not much interested in the arcane details of how parliament or the law works. They are busy. In their personal lives they have to go to work and get stuff done.

All Cummings has done is to spot that this is how people feel. He ( via Boris) uses parliament as a stage to confirm that it is an odds with how most of us have to behave to get through our lives.

He has done this through classic, brutally simple, brand positioning thinking that has three characteristics 1) a positioning that is easy to remember 2) that boxes in ( or “depositions” ) the competition and 3) (important this) is rooted in a widely accepted truth

The simple positioning: The tories will deliver on the will of the people

De-positioning the competition as: A confused group of interests that can’t get anything done except frustrate progress

The truth: Three years on from the vote parliament has stopped progress.

My point here is not – is this right or wrong? Just- is it effective? It is and that is why Cummings is hated. (He is also shy-is my guess- and given to covering this up with a carapace of aggression – which does not help)

Can The Labour Party mount a counter communications strategy ?

Labour now is too introverted and bound up in its own internal battles and bureaucratic structures.  It used to be good at communications strategy in the Blair/Campbell era- but both these men are now so hated The Labour Party  cannot learn from them.

Corbyn and MacDonald look and sound like machine politicians of the pre Blair era.  And in their attempt to fight Cummings they have fallen back on old, and distinctly retro, campaigning techniques. They have, late in the day, come up with a simple strategy. But is it any good?

The simple positioning:  We are the real representatives of the people

De-positioning the competition as: “posh boys”  or the rich elite  or a conspiracy of the rich elite ( an idea proposed on Newsnight by Paul Mason)

But a really good communications strategy has to have the ring of truth about it to take root and have longevity. This one -apart from being a throwback to the era of smoky rooms, long sideburn and flared Trowsers- doesn’t. All political parties have posh folk. Far from hating Eton, labour front benchers like their children to go to elite fee paying schools.

As for Mason’s conspiracy of the elites: this is a desperate attempt to re-present some city folk, who are shorting the pound,  as something more sinister. Conspiracy theories have a long and disreputable history and are almost always the product of a fevered imagination.  This one is not going to fly.

Try “the truth well told” instead

What should Labour do?  Try something truthful. Truth is the bedrock of a really good strategy. “The truth well told” is a good way to think of an effective strategy. This is what journalists often miss – as they tend to think of adfolk as people who hoodwink the public

The truth is that Brexit is a really complex and there is no “getting Brexit done” –  even if  the government gets an agreement through, it is just the start of years of negotiations. Without a deal – even more negotiations. We will be locked into an endless depressing cycle that will most likely lead to the breakup of the union. That is a really sad and unnecessary future.

I would start there – start calling it as it. The public will respect you for it