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.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.