THE BLOG

Trump Won Because Political Communicators Failed

09/11/2016 15:44
Fred Prouser / Reuters

I'm in New York and Donald J Trump has just won the presidential race. To say people in this city are surprised is a typical British understatement. They are shocked to the core. Numb, reeling, in tears. They never thought this could happen. Never saw it coming for one second. To them it is a 'Black Swan Event'; something that could never have been predicted. And I'm not quite sure how they'll get over it.

I'm upset and angry too. But to many Brits here in the US, and across the world, it's not such a surprise. We have just experienced our very own Black Swan Event in the shape of Brexit. We've seen it before. Such a similar pattern: the polls and commentariat all smugly predicting a comfortable win for Hillary Clinton one minute, only to be proved spectacularly wrong the next.
Trump's win is the manifest failure of the professional class of people whose job it is to sell a person and their vision: political communicators. And I'm one of them, so it's my failure too. As a profession we have utterly failed to be any good at our job. If we were car salesmen, and despite the great footfall and warm customers coming into the showroom, we hadn't sold any cars, we'd have been sacked by now.

It's our job as professional communicators to win people over to our way of thinking. But we're not. We're still falling into the same old traps. Listening to ourselves; believing that we don't need to question ourselves; that we have little to learn - we just need to tweak the strategy and all will be well. We're trying to climb the ladder in numerous different ways without realising that the people we're talking to are on a completely different ladder. And it's not even leaning against the same wall.

I remember when I interviewed the political strategist, Sir Lynton Crosby, for my Media Focus podcast more than a year ago now, and he described Twitter as an echo-chamber reflecting back and amplifying all those things you want to hear - not a real reflection of society as a whole. This is now a generally accepted view. But has it changed the way we do our jobs or the way we think about the public? No. Not one bit.

And to compound this enormous problem, we're still relying on what we've always done: giving people facts - lots and lots of them - and then expecting these facts to make voters respond on an emotional level. But people just don't work like that.

Many years ago I recall having a long chat with Peter Watt, who was then the General Secretary of the Labour Party. He outlined the problem very clearly. When you're on the doorstep and you're trying to convince someone to vote Labour, facts are often your worst enemy. If that homeowner says: 'I used to vote Labour but now my daughter can't get on the housing list because of immigrants'. There's no point in saying: 'Well, if you look at breakdown of the housing list you'll see that the ethnicity is, in fact, 97 per cent White British'. This will not work. It will just make them think you're part of the 'conspiracy'. But you know, this is exactly what we're still doing, all these years later.

We can't seem to accept that the more we sneer, patronise and spit facts back at people, the more we're turning them off. We don't see that the more we ignore their emotions and genuinely held views, the less likely they are to even listen to us. The Brexit campaign was a fine example. We utterly ignored that there was a coherent, respectable, non-racist case for voting Leave. And we failed to recognise that people were angry and upset; that they didn't want facts, they wanted emotion and leadership.

I'm a Blairite and I know a few things about facts and politics. They only work as a political communications tool if the people trust you. Before Iraq, facts worked. After Iraq they didn't. Similarly, we have Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party because the facts don't wash anymore. He is Leader because people feel an emotional connection to him. They believe he is on their side, is speaking up for them and their vision. It doesn't matter if, factually speaking, he gets things spectacularly wrong. They don't care. They forgive him.

So it's time we political communicators accepted that we've failed. We must take responsibility and start the search for answers. What we're doing right now - our strategies - are not working, and they're not going to magically start working again next week. We must use the Trump victory to kick-start a revolution in the way we do our business. We must find answers. Not just here in the UK but across the world. No one is listening to us right now and the spectre of Far Right populism is closing in. We don't have much time.

Comments

CONVERSATIONS