Communicator of the Week: Margaret Thatcher
9th April 2013
Margaret Thatcher was a pioneer of political PR. An icon to many on the right of British politics she should also be seen as an icon in the PR world too. In many ways, Margaret Thatcher set the standard by which all future politicians would be measured in terms of how effectively they communicated their message. The way she presented herself and her policies wasn't always subtle but it was as effective as it was relentless.
She refused to read the papers – having a particular dislike for journalists – and is said by her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, to have only "dipped her toe into TV and radio". Yet, during her time as leader of the opposition, then prime minister, Lady Thatcher revolutionised how politics was communicated in the UK. Her approach was based on the essential premise that simplicity of words should never be accompanied by any form of dumbing down. Her knack of connecting with the average voter is legendary and a lesson in communication for any politician, business leader or public figure wanting to connect with their audience. The daughter of a shopkeeper she used her humble origins consistently to make awkward decisions on macro-economics relevant by comparing them to budgeting for a household. She littered her TV interviews with examples and anecdotes to enliven what she was saying; making her message accessible to the average family.
She knew the power of image and used this to present her policy agenda to voters – remember she was often a lone woman in a very male dominated world – careful to have the suit, hair and handbag just so.
In the early days of post revolution America, George Washington used his considerable height, a whig and a white horse to communicate power and authority wherever he travelled. Thatcher did the same with her suits, handbags and coiffered hair. There is a story of how her handbag alone held a room full of senior ministers in silence despite her seat at the table being empty. Those who felt the wrath of Thatcher in her prime recall the experience as a "handbagging". Her willingness to exploit a photo-opportunity was another example of how she used positive images to tell her story. Whether litter-picking, hugging a calf or popping on an apron and setting about to work in a kitchen she used photo-ops in a way no British politician ever had before.
As a speech maker she was typically forthright rather than electrifying, but frequently she took care to deliver a well thought through argument rather than a collection of clap lines or soundbites. She had elocution lessons and coaching to lower her voice which meant that she slowed her delivery down too. This worked in her favour adding authority to her words through the frequent use of pauses and her deliberate delivery of her speeches.
She was also willing to embrace new mediums and find news ways to connect with her target audience. President Obama has been criticised for appearing too often on Oprah, but Margaret Thatcher went on children's TV show 'Saturday Superstore' in 1987 amongst other "soft" media.
All this added up to a political phenomenon which underlined her power and helped to create the right environment to win three consecutive election victories. Many of the methods used in political campaigns or in business to communicate well are based on things Margaret Thatcher was doing 30 years ago. This makes Margaret Thatcher my Communicator of the Week.
Written by Edward Staite, founder of Staite Communications