What do we want the PR to achieve? What do we want the target audiences to think about the brand or the organisation? What messages do we want to convey?
Typically, once these questions are answered and the budget defined, a PR programme will be devised with ideas to achieve the objectives and influence the audience.
The PR strategy of competitors may be considered, but it will rarely influence the way in which otherwise the campaign conveys the brand’s own messages.
However there are many other campaigns where counteracting and foiling the opposition’s PR strategy is not only important, it is sometimes the whole purpose of the organisation. Anti-fracking campaign groups in, for instance, Sussex are solely focussed on opposing the oil exploration companies who want to extract the fuel from underground. There are the anti-GM foods campaigners trying to prevent new types of seed being used and there are always local opponents trying to prevent planning permission for roads or housing developments.
It’s not just the centuries long opposition to change that has groups engaging in negative, disruptive campaigns. Several years ago the butter industry and the low fat spread companies seemed to come up with new research alternative weeks to question the safety of the other’s product and share this with the world via the Daily Mail health pages.
Negative campaigning is an interesting, different world of PR. It’s war, but not as we know it, and for those of us who are preoccupied with creating positive new ideas for clients and only looking at competitors to avoid copying their tactics, it must be a strangely different mind-set.
It is all around us at present – the election campaign.
Like soccer or rugby teams whose approach is to identify their opponent’s attacking strengths, select strategies and formations to stop the other team scoring and then hope to win with a penalty, the political strategists appear to be focussing more on negating other parties, their messages and the images of their leaders rather than on ‘scoring’ with positive messages of their own.
Thinking about the messages being pushed out, the ones that come most readily to mind are that all the parties keep reminding us on how the Lib Dems broke their promise on tuition fees after the last election, Labour simply seem to be pushing the image of the Tories as a party that only wants to help the rich, and the SNP are being positioned by their opponents as the party that will hold the rest of the UK to ransom.
Occasionally, even politicians on all sides think that it goes too far. Michael Fallon was widely condemned even by other Conservatives when he portrayed Ed Miliband as a man who could not be trusted with our defence budget because he ‘stabbed his brother in the back’ in the party leadership election.
The result is that during Question Time, debates etc., many of the public are crying out that they do not know what the major parties stand for, that they are fed up with this negative campaigning. It is this negative approach that has created a political vacuum into which UKIP and the SNP have come with several clear distinctive opinions and policies of their own; it is the negative, cliché packed PR and lack of distinctive positive new ideas from the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems that have led to the rise of UKIP and the SNP.
It’s a very dull colourless war between PR teams and their campaigns and, like defensive football, this negative based campaigning is uninspiring to watch. The only colour in the weeks of words so far has come inadvertently from almost daily non PC, off message gaffes from UKIP candidates and this week from the inevitable Boris Johnson interjection in the Telegraph questioning the wisdom of putting the SNP in a position of influence across the UK. He started his article with –
“You wouldn’t get Herod to run a baby farm, would you? It would not normally occur to you to interview a convicted jewel thief for the post of custodian of the Tower of London.
“You would not dream of asking a fox to look after the henhouse or a temperance campaigner to run a brewery or Attila the Hun to work as a doorkeeper for the Roman senate – and no one in their right mind would enter into a contract with a bunch of voracious weevils to protect the lovely old timbers in the tower of the local church. Would they?”
It may be negative but at least it is original and colourful. (PS – a baby farm?)
Can we please have a focus on original positive ideas before the PR war lets UKIP and the SNP totally steal control, not just of the limelight but of the UK?