Can you handle the press-ure? How to avoid the media mistakes of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn

In Strategic Communications by Tim SwabeyLeave a Comment

Media pressure during an election campaign can be intolerable for politicians. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are not helping themselves by attempting to contain and control the press during the campaign.
This approach is bound to backfire. The key to securing a more positive and nuanced slant to a story for your organisation is to build positive relationships with journalists by actively engaging with them.
In the second series of political TV comedy The Thick of It, infamous media-manager Malcolm Tucker promises to ‘eviscerate’ the night editor of the Daily Mail. In reality, threatening journalists like this is a good way of receiving negative coverage – so what is the best way to avoid a media ‘omnishambles’?

To build a successful, positive media profile, you have to engage with journalists, and build a relationship through repeated, two-way conversations. Neither of the two main party election campaigns have done this.

Take the Conservative campaign. Commentators criticised Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable’ repetition of the same old soundbites in the face of media questioning. Worse, media outlets have found her PR team are too controlling.

Channel 4’s political correspondent Michael Crick complained that he wasn’t able to ask the PM a question without first getting approval from her aides. This lack of media access has led to reports that Theresa May alienated Sky news. Similarly there have been complaints about her PR team keeping a tight control over microphones to prevent follow-up questions or deeper probing into her answers during Q&As. In one infamous case, local reporters in Cornwall were locked in a room and banned from filming without prior permission.

Revenge came quickly – May was faced with highly aggressive questioning by reporters following her ‘clarification’ of the Conservative Manifesto on Monday. A lighter touch with the media beforehand might have resulted in less tenacity in their questioning when things got tough.

Jeremy Corbyn, despite benefitting from the so called ‘wobble weekend’ (seen as a period before the election when polls narrowed), has gone ever further in attempting to control the press.

His campaign team have implemented a rota whereby only one print or online journalist follows Corbyn at a time. The aim is to secure more positive coverage by encouraging one-on-one engagement and a focus on in-depth interviews.

This is a risky strategy and unlikely to pay off. Journalists left out of the fold may become more critical. It also means the Labour leader will be at a disadvantage when he needs to rebut a story in a particular paper quickly – after all, their correspondent won’t be on hand to record a statement.

He has also taken a hard line on outlets that have displeased him. Following an interview which reported that he would stay on as Labour leader even if the Conservatives won the election, Corbyn banned Buzzfeed from future campaign events.

This surprisingly hard-line move alienated an outlet with a large youth readership – exactly the voters he is counting on to support him on June 8th.

It’s unlikely that Corbyn will manage to get positive coverage in ideologically opposed outlets such as The Sun or Daily Mail. However engaging with their reporters will swing the balance between an overtly negative and a more balanced line taken in an article. Or it could result in managing to get a rebuttal statement published – something which cannot be guaranteed. These outcomes are far more achievable if the people in question have a good pre-existing relationship with a journalist.

Whilst political leaders receive a tough time in the press, generally those representing businesses, charities or campaign groups should not consider journalists hostile from the outset.

Journalists are the key to getting your organisation’s voice heard in a positive light, and engaging with journalists is essential to making this happen.

Almost counter-intuitively, if your organisation faces significant reputational risks, engaging with journalists that might write something nasty about you is even more important. It can provide advanced warning of negative press, as well as a chance to combat it. After all, when a news story emerges, a journalist is far more likely to approach an organisation to check its accuracy, and publish its comments on the issue, if that organisation has engaged with them beforehand.

The same concept applies to political parties. Communications is about relationships, and treating journalists badly will only cause both party leaders further headaches in the future. Building a long-term, positive relationship with the press is the best way of influencing how they perceive you.

As Corbyn and May need to learn – when your back is against the wall, you may not be able to make negative press disappear, but you can give yourself the best possible chance to rebut and moderate it.

 

If you are interested in learning more about how to engage with journalists to better raise your profile or manage potential reputational risk, get in touch via tim@gkstrategy.com.

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