The “go home” campaign has the hallmarks of a classic PR stunt

Sorry, politicians don't get to use the controversy/backlash/press coverage PR ploy.

It’s among the more venerable tricks in the PR book - release an edgy ad, stir up a bit of a backlash, and use the resultant press to catapult your reach into the stratosphere at no extra cost. Shock tactics have been used to sell everything from cars to deodorant (search "Lynx Advert banned" and Google’s layout positions a number of distracting images above the nuanced comment pieces they were uploaded to illustrate). Today, however, there came a watershed moment in the influence of commercial communications on politics. When the Prime Minister’s spokesman praised the Home Office’s divisive "go home or face arrest" posters and leaflets because they were attracting “a great deal of interest,” (read: column inches) he fell within this tradition. Political comms advisers should remember they’re meant to be improving lives, not just getting noticed.

The modern appetite for controversy is huge, and not entirely a bad thing. Search engine DuckDuckGo, a wonderful product which prides itself on its privacy policy, has piggybacked with awe-inspiring shamelessness on coverage around the NSA digital spying scandal. Even the most virulent anti-capitalist had to crack a smile at Nandos’ Mugabe-baiting "Last Dictator Standing" ads. I still recall with affection my first childhood trip to an IMAX where they informed an audience of breathlessly excited kids that the screen was SO big we might ACTUALLY FAINT. If we must be bombarded with corporate messaging, I’d rather it makes me smile, or even think, as it bends my desires to the service of the combine.

However, this is one of those cases where politicians just don’t get to join the party. There are many fun things you can do as a cabinet minister: enjoy a subsidised brandy, get an ideology named after you, shout ‘hear hear hear’ without people nearby crying with embarrassment. One thing you can’t do is provoke discord for the sake of discord. The only purpose of the controversy surrounding the ads is to get commentators of the left and right making the noises the Tories want them to make. Since the intended impact on illegal immigrants relies largely on locally specific data and the immediate shock value of seeing the messages near their home, noisy coverage will make no difference to the volume of emigrations the campaign provokes.

I could be wrong - The Home Office, who devised the campaign, might be totally flabbergasted by the attention - but I don’t think so. This has all the hallmarks of a classic PR stunt. Costing a mere £10,000, its deployment in a slew of highly diverse London boroughs seems calculated to generate maximum media attention - the most "Opportunities to See" for the budget, in comms parlance. A recent Home Office report identified "medium sized towns" and "asylum dispersal areas" like Plymouth and Bolton as the places where local communities were worst affected by immigration. None of these places have the outspoken, media-friendly MPs and Councillors and nearby press presence that London does, however.

Let nobody accuse me of blandness. I used to work in PR, and I enjoyed annoying some people in order to get other people to come to theatre shows, gigs and other clients who benefited from our dark arts. The great American publicist Jim Moran once said that “it’s a sad day for American capitalism when a man can’t fly a midget on a kite over Central Park” when a judge prevented him from doing so to promote a breakfast cereal. In some ways, I agree with him, but it’s a sad day for British politics when a government department prizes white noise over targeted discussion, and decides that it doesn’t matter if a policy helps communities, makes people feel safe or even necessarily works on a basic level, as long as somebody’s watching.

Home Office. Photograph: Getty Images

Josh Lowe is a freelance journalist and communications consultant. Follow him on Twitter @jeyylowe.

Getty
Show Hide image

Mister Lizard is not at home to bailiffs – he is eating salmon pâté by the river

Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”?

Summer’s nearly over. I look at the angle of the sunlight as it strikes the back terrace of the Hovel. I have been here long enough to use the terrace as a gnomon marking the passage of the year. I need, like the protagonists of Withnail and I, to go to the countryside to rejuvenate.

Last week when the Perseids were meant to be in full flow I asked frantically on a social medium for people to chum me along on a midnight walk on Hampstead Heath. In the end my new friends A— and her husband, C—, together with his new friend (whose initial I have forgotten, but he is Australian, if that helps), stepped up to the plate and after a couple at the Flask we went on a wide-ranging tour, which was a bust as far as seeing meteors – or my favourite tree – went, but was still hugely enjoyable. At about 2 am they packed me into an Uber and I went home happy, but I still felt as if I could do with more countryside.

The next few days made me even more anxious to get out of London. There are ominous signs that some serious roadworks are going to be taking place outside my bedroom window any day now. A bailiff came and rang the doorbell and I didn’t have the heart, or the nerve, to say that Nicholas Lezard was not at home at the moment and, is, in fact, on a walking tour of Patagonia now I come to think of it, due back some time next year. I just took the piece of paper into my hands as if it were a chicken come home to roost.

The previous day, presumably the same bailiff had come round and asked if Mr Lizard was in, and my housemate gallantly – and quite truthfully – said “no”. (Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”? Maybe it’s because they haven’t ever been.) In addition, as I said last week, the cleaning lady is on holiday and the Hovel is starting to look distinctly seedy.

So, then I get a call from a person who once featured quite prominently in this column, some time ago. This person is bored and wants me to go to his or her town and alleviate his or her boredom. This person and I parted company in circumstances that were far from ideal some time ago, and only recently have diplomatic relations been resumed.

It is too late, I say, for me to get on the train now; but when I have reviewed the book I am meant to be reviewing, I will hop on the train tomorrow around noon. And so I do, despite some monkey business from the departures board at King’s Cross, which tells passengers the 12:44 has been cancelled, then hasn’t been, then has, then hasn’t after all, while the 12:14 has slipped away like a thief in the night without telling anyone it was doing so.

I wonder if my return to the town of ——— is wise. As a dog returneth to its vomit, so doth a fool return to his folly. And the burnt hand fears the fire. Look, I say to myself, all we’re doing is going to have a picnic by the river. As we buy our supplies, the stallholder at the market asks if I am my companion’s husband. “No, he’s my picnic buddy,” he or she replies. “Never heard it called that before,” says the stallholder.

And the day passes perfectly pleasantly. We have two bottles of wine, cheese and smoked salmon pâté with crusty bread. People in punts drift past us, with varying degrees of competence. I remember it is A-level results day and call the eldest boy to ask how he’s done. He’s done well enough, it turns out, to get a place at university, though he feels obliged to point out that his results came in exactly a year ago. This is the kind of thing that happens when the number of children you have exceeds your mental bandwidth.

Later on, a porter from the college behind which we are picnicking asks me if I am a member, or an alumni. “Alumnus,” I correct him gently, hoping that this should establish my credentials. He asks for my name, and he radios the porters’ lodge to check my veracity. For some reason it takes him several goes to get my name right.

One of these goes is “Lizard”. We offer him some cheese, but he refuses, on the grounds that he has just had a banana and a cup of tea. I could live in a guest room here, I reflect, at not much higher rent than one pays in London. And the beauty of it is that the police, and presumably bailiffs, have to ask permission to go through the gates. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser