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.
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.