Not for the first time in recent months, I had my head in my hands this morning as Theresa May tried to communicate. Not for the first time she failed, miserably. Tragically. My despair is partly that of a Tory but mostly that of someone who cares passionately about the art of communication, the beauty of making an argument, the joy of seeing someone influence someone else with their ideas and their approach. Putting politics and my own electoral preferences aside, when I watched Theresa May interviewed by Andrew Marr this morning I saw someone who breaks every rule of good strategic communications. Let’s take a look.
A successful strategic communicator has two things; a great plan and a great combination of clear focus on audience, message and media (who, what and how). This morning – sadly, not for the first time – Mrs May had none of these things in hand. She is – in the words of Kevin Keegan when he resigned as England football manager – a little short at this level.
Her interview was hard to watch because it broke all the rules. There is no strategy and no plan – you have no idea how this outing fits with what else she is doing and how it fits with other senior colleagues or the theme of her conference. It feels like an isolated intervention – not part of some masterplan.
There was no clarity this morning on who she was talking to; who was her pitch (if we can call it that) aimed at? Her party members, MPs, Tory voters, graduates or students who have fallen in love with Jeremy Corbyn, floating voters, the media, who? Of course, like most strategic communicator she should have multiple audiences in mind – as my superb colleague at University of Liverpool, Dr Rudi Palmieri has argued. But despite this complexity it should have been possible to discern which of her stakeholders she was addressing. It was not. She was all over the place and – as we will see when we discuss media – her delivery was so muddled (and fast) that it was often hard to hear all the messages, let alone work out who they were aimed at!
On message, we were left completely in the dark. Gone are the days of message disincline. ‘Strong and stable’ on its own as a message wasn’t a problem – the general election campaign started well for Mrs May – it was when the reality hit home that she wasn’t strong and far from stable on policy and vision that the wheels began to come off. What we got this morning was a mess. No clear narrative. No overall theme to her comments. No story for the voters on what happens now, how she intends to lead, what she learnt from her defeat. Nothing. She didn’t even have a message prepared for the two most obvious questions she was going to be asked – is she sacking Boris and will she apologise for her election failure.
When it came to the media – the how of her approach today – it became even harder to watch. Just to remind ourselves, this is a politician of immense experience. An MP for over twenty years. The longest serving Home Secretary in living memory. The current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And yet, her delivery of message was rushed, nervy, edgy, a combination of over-reversed and under-prepared. She didn’t answer the questions and seemed caught out by most of the questions. She resorted to the sloppy and deeply irritating politician’s friend of cliches, platitudes (this is what most of her communications are made up of most of the time) stock phrases when in a thought spot; what I am saying, the point I would like to make, the important question is, etc etc. It was like watching someone on TV for the first time; a new MP finding the glare of the camera a little hard to handle.
We didn’t learn anything new about Theresa May today – she was already out of her depth before she walked on to the Marr set but we got a reminder of her chronic failings – not just as a politician but as a communicator. Someone who gives comms a bad name. As the great Seamus Heaney said “if you have the words, there’s always a chance you’ll find the way”. Given the risible state of her communicating this morning, it’s no wonder Mrs May is completely lost.
Photo taken from BBC News website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-41459686/theresa-may-cabinet-is-united-in-mission-of-this-government