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.

Photo: Getty
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Jess Phillips's Diary: Lazy attacks on “lazy MPs”, and how to tackle the trolls

The Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley takes us through her week.

As parliament kicked us out for the conference recess season on 14 September, several tabloids run the predictable story: “MPs go back on holiday today only NINE days after returning to parliament from a six-week summer break.” I imagine the journalist who churns it out hates doing the same tired “all MPs are lazy baddies” shtick as much as we hate having to rebut the nonsense idea that we are on holiday when we are working full-time in our constituencies.

Legislation is on holiday, not legislators. I have still yet to find an MP who thinks it reasonable that parliament shuts for three weeks for conference season. Why can we not have these conferences at the weekend? Or during the summer recess? Hell, why do we have to have them so regularly at all?

Is the nation screaming out for the politically minded to spend hundreds of pounds sleeping on the floor of an overcrowded Airbnb in a seaside town after a heavy night on warm wine and small food? I’ll wager that you cannot find me a person on the Clapham omnibus – or frankly any omnibus, whatever an omnibus even is – who thinks we should have a week off making laws so that the Lib Dems can do karaoke.

Her Maj

As well as time off for conference, it seems that the Tories will be scurrying home early every Wednesday as well. They appear to be on strike from voting on any opposition day motions as their governing partners, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, play fast and loose with their allegiances. (The DUP backed a Labour motion against raising tuition fees, which the government says is non-binding.)

I and other Labour MPs sat in parliament and watched ministerial cars speed off on 13 September as the whips told the great and good to go home. Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition is a pretty important part of our democracy. If I were Her Maj I might be more than a little peeved that Mrs May cannot be arsed to turn up to fight for what she believes in, whatever that is. Presumably whatever Boris Johnson and his gang say it is this week.

Leave the kids alone

I spent the weekend at a local Labour Party fundraiser, at my surgery, and handing out certificates to hundreds of young people graduating from the National Citizen Service. I sat in front of a lively, wildly diverse group of young people and thought we should hand over managing geopolitics to them for a while. Even the naughty kid at the back (whom I had to scold) gave me more faith than what I see on the news.

Family life

At a debate about the abuse of MPs, the traditional Tory colonel Bob Stewart told the house that his son had been targeted and isolated by his schoolteacher because his father was a Conservative MP.

Now, I’ve had my run-in ins with the colonel in the past, but I was horrified by this – one of my sons is the same age as his. As a parent and an MP I dread the idea that my choices will cause my sons’ grief. I’ve got enough guilt about leaving them half the week without their being targeted and bullied. I once found my son and his mates watching videos about me on YouTube that had been made by men’s rights activists. The vicious content was unsettling enough, but the thought of his teacher joining in the hate is harrowing (and, I’m pleased to say, completely unthinkable at his school). Our families are conscripts to this life – some are conscientious objectors.

Troll detection

So, should we ban internet trolls who abuse MPs online from voting? This is the suggestion floated by the Electoral Commission. I can see the argument for trying to make people treat the electoral system with respect. I also think we have got to have a hard line and a punishment. I’m just not sure how we will decide what is abuse. People say sexist stuff to me all the time. Would a negative comment about my appearance count, or are we talking rape and death threats? (What a time to be alive, when I can give a traffic light system to my sexist online abuse.) To some, the idea of having your vote taken away would only provoke a shrug; but to me it seems too much.

Climb every mountain

I have nearly finished More in Common by my friend Brendan Cox. It is about his late wife, my friend Jo, and is brilliant, but I dip in and out because I want it to last. Reading it makes me feel so tired: maybe because I read it in bed, but also because Jo’s energy and adventures seem exhausting. I like mountains on a screen saver, but I wouldn’t climb one, especially not with a tropical disease or a baby in my belly.

I’m also exhausted because of the ridiculous late nights we seem to be adopting in parliament. Jo’s distaste for the silly hours is covered in the book. She couldn’t understand why we couldn’t start earlier than 11.30am and finish in time for people to see their kids. As I put down the story of her life (and, my god, what a life) I’ll gladly trek for her to the seemingly impassable peak of reforming the voting hours in parliament. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left