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The worst PR election gaffes this century

5th June 2017


There’s not a general election in recent memory without a PR gaffe to make us all laugh and cringe. This year we’ve been treated to the unique spectacle of a party U-turning on its election manifesto during the campaign – thanks Theresa May and Nick Timothy for that special moment. But we’re here to help our PM get over it by reminding her of some of our favourite gaffes of the 21st century.

Shrewd observers will note some of these blunders were caused by poorly thought through ad campaigns, to which we’d nod, smile and gently remind clients that it’s always worth checking through potentially risky ad campaigns with your PR team before they run. (Hi United, McDonalds, Nivea – thanks for making 2017 the year we’re reminded of this weekly).

Now, onto the gaffes and an incredibly scientific rating process, based on the impact they had and whether the gaffe should have been spotted in advance. Spoiler: Boris doesn’t feature and we’re as surprised by that as you are.

The Lib Dem’s tuition fee pledge in 2010
The classic mistake – promoting yourselves based on a brilliant idea that in theory you hope you’d never have to execute in practice. It’s easy to understand why Clegg and co made it such a big part of their election campaign given the positive coverage helped propel the Lib Dems into the national conversation and made them seem a more realistic coalition partner for the Conservative party.

But it also taught us all a valuable lesson – never appear with massive props in photos if you’re not 100% certain you can keep the promise. Words can be forgotten, but picture galleries are forever.

Gaffe rating – 2/5. It was brilliant PR at the time, but came back to bite them in a big way. But in defence of the Lib Dem press office, who possibly could have known they’d ever form a government?

Gordon Brown 'bigoted woman' comment caught on tape
Oh Gordon. Always, always check if the mic’s still on. In fact, if there’s a mic attached to you in any way, don’t say anything you don’t want the world to hear. Or your mum. It’s a good rule for spokespeople in fact; don’t say anything you wouldn’t want your mum to hear.

From a PR perspective, it’s more of a disaster than a gaffe. It undermined the carefully constructed message around Brown, that he understood working people and their fears. And it confirmed what the political classes thought of him – that his temper could get the better of him.

Gaffe rating – 5/5. Someone should have checked he wasn’t mic’ed up. And the PR team’s handling of the fallout was a mess. It was the perfect storm and one Brown couldn’t recover from.

The Conservative’s devil poster of Tony Blair
It sounds so clever doesn’t it? New Labour, New Danger. Great copywriting, backed up by a quote from a Labour MP with concerns about Blair. So far, so good. But that design undoes all the good work. The Demon Eyes just look a bit naff. And they annoyed people.

Someone, somewhere should have said that however smart an ad concept it is, it’s not going to play out well in the media and with the public. Or, as it turns out, with your own party – it’s never a good look when one of your own former leaders feels the need to criticise your election materials.

It also led to one of the great PR wins of any election campaign – Labour getting the Bishop of Oxford to complain to the ASA about it. So bonus points there.

Gaffe rating – 3/5. It’s a lovely idea, but the design annoyed everyone. We’d rank it higher, but Labour were going to win the election anyway.

The Conservative’s ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking’ slogan
No, no we’re not. How could you ever think we were?

This is the creepiest slogan any political campaigner has ever thought of and it’s an utter mystery to me how this got any further than the first time anyone uttered it. It’s less a gaffe and more an entire party not bothering to think about anything at all.

It also confirmed everything we already thought about Michael Howard – that he’s a bit stuck in the past, and also a bit incompetent. We mostly thought that because of Dead Ringers, so good work by their writers.

Gaffe rating – 5/5. This ever seeing the light of day makes it deserve full marks.

Ed’s bacon sandwich
Not technically an election gaffe. But honestly, it’s too good not to include. It’s a classic PR error – an awkward spokesperson put in an awkward situation and confirmed what everyone already thought, that Ed Miliband wasn’t quite like the rest of us.

What makes it even worse is that his team knew he shouldn’t be caught eating or drinking on camera. I had the pleasure of interviewing him over breakfast in the 2012 local election campaign, but his team had one big demand, we couldn’t take pictures or video while Ed was eating. If only they’d stuck to that rule, he might have been PM. Well, maybe.

Gaffe rating – 4/5. They knew it was a bad idea and did it anyway. And the public reacted as you’d expect them to react. Come on guys.

With just a few days to go of campaigning, we can all unite around one thing – the hope of one more cock up to distract us from the soundbites. Come on Boris, what are you waiting for?

Article written by Tom Rouse, strategy director at agency Hotwire PR



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