THE BLOG

Face It: In 2016, You Just Can't Spin Disability Cuts

22/03/2016 17:19 GMT | Updated 23/03/2017 09:12 GMT

PR is the bedrock on which our government is built. It's right at the heart of the way it operates. We have never had a more media-savvy government or PR-aware leadership. So why did they think they could spin their way around the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) disability cuts?

To understand why they truly believed that the great British people would swallow the proposed PIP cuts you need to go back in time. Quite a long way.

PR and politics - the early years

Academics agree that PR really started to take off during the Thatcher era, bolstered by free-market economics and the 'Loadsamoney' culture. It wasn't long before the Thatcher government embraced it as an effective way to speak voters' language and get the right number of crosses in the ballot box.

Arguably, Thatcher was the first modern leader with a clear, strong vision that she could articulate - and that always helps when it comes to PR. And she was probably the first leader to really believe that you could use PR to sell ideas and policies to the people. Then came Blair. He took Thatcher's PR playbook to the next level. He knew right from the start that PR could be used not just to sell policies, but to sell personalities. Blair knew that PR was the key to keeping him, and consequently the Party, in power. And it worked.

Dave the PR man

Roll on to David Cameron. Dave looked at Blair's model and knew he already had one over on old Tony: he was a PR man even before he became a politician.

Cameron has been successful thus far because he's a PR man first and a politician second. His entire political personality has been conceived by PR. He is the human embodiment of spin. And to date, whether we like him or not, his PR has worked. He is still the Prime Minister and he pulled off an incredible coup at the last election, going against every poll out there to get the Tories re-elected.

Political PR has a sell-by date

So PR works for political leaders. It allows them to sell policy and sell themselves. But there is a limit, and just like his predecessors, Cameron is now about to discover that political spin has a sell-by date. If he'd done his homework a little more thoroughly, he'd have seen that leaders and governments have a PR grace period. Their first five-year term can be controlled with clear, strong PR. The public will believe the messages. They will be reassured by your words; happy to have someone in power with a clear focus and determination to get things done. However, once a leader and party enters that difficult second term, things do tend to go a bit wobbly on the PR front.

The reason for this falloff of PR effectiveness is that most politicians, even Dave the PR man, can't - or won't - change their PR strategy and messaging to fit the prevailing conditions. They think that just because the themes, messages and style of delivery worked for the first five years, it'll work for another five too. Wrong. Very wrong. PR is about people and people change. Target audiences change their opinions depending on what you've done before, and what others are doing right now. And so do politicians. Ask IDS.

On top of this unwillingness to look at whether their PR messages are still working, the government has fallen into the other massive elephant trap - the one that Blair fell into so spectacularly: believing that their success thus far demonstrates that they're always right and the people are always wrong.

PR only works if you listen to people

Cameron and Osborne didn't appreciate the need to look again at their target audience, consider that their views might of changed and reflect on whether the government could actually be wrong on occasions. Because they didn't have the self-awareness to do this, they did not analyse their PR strategy, adapt, refocus or redirect, and fell into the biggest trap of all: underestimating their audience. Consequently, they pitched their PR in completely the wrong place - relying on old messaging themes to get the job done.

Let's look at an example. The last five spring budget speeches have revolved around the theme of securing Britain's economic future. Hardly a surprise I hear you cry - this is the budget after all. But when you delve a bit deeper you realise that the message has been hugely truncated and simplified over the years. In 2012 you had a Chancellor focusing on the facts and practical steps we need to take to reach this Elysian Field. In 2016, we have a Chancellor who is very light on detail and exceptionally heavy on slogans. This simplification is indicative of an organisation that believes it doesn't matter what they say, people will swallow it.

PIP is a PR disaster

Combine this hubris with bad policy and you get the PIP disability cuts shambles. It's hard to understand why they thought PIP - or in fact anywhere in the Department for Work and Pensions - was a good place to claw back savings. But this aside, it's clear that they never looked at the contrary argument. PR is not just there to help you position yourself and your ideas, it's also there to help you sanity check your ideas. Good PR, done properly, helps you examine whether an idea is saleable in the first place. Or whether it's just a terrible thought that should be instantly consigned to the mad-ideas bin.

Following IDS's explosive resignation, we had the typical badly executed PR scramble. First, try to paint IDS as a bit unhinged. Ensure a few colleagues put the boot in. Make sure the leaders and instigators, in this case Cameron and Osborne, are unaccountably absent. Bring in a nice, young, co-operative, ambitious fresh face to run the DWP to distance you from it all. Then, and this is important, make sure everyone thinks that the PIP cuts just slipped in to the budget by mistake, leading to the rather bizarre spectacle of Ministers declaring: Well, who put them there?! How terrible! I'm shocked!

So where does the government go from here? First, it needs to realise pretty sharpish that there are some things that PR just can't help you with. And one of those things is further welfare cuts. But despite their promise to take welfare out of cuts packages in future, I suspect that they have not grasped the whole concept. I would put money on them targeting other sensitive areas because they do believe they can spin their way out of everything. All governments do. But a word of advice: do a PR audit, look again, change your themes and messaging asap before your PR turns on you instead.