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What lessons does political message discipline have for internal communications

In politics, being “on message” is an essential skill for anyone trusted by their party to hit the airwaves on their behalf. With a general election just months away, what does this message discipline tell us about our own communications?

Some politicians stick so robotically to their script that voters reach for something to throw at the TV out of frustration. But there is a reason they do it. Most voters spend less than a couple of minutes a week thinking about politics. So when they do tune in politicians know that they need them to hear a message that is simple and consistent.

Only when the politicians themselves are thoroughly sick of saying the same thing over and over again in every interview can they be sure that there’s even a chance it’s cutting through with real people.

Now it is Labour that has been building a consistent message. Keir Starmer has been criticised for not fleshing out more detail about what a Labour government would really look like. But again, this is deliberate. He knows voters aren’t yet paying attention like they will during the election campaign.

So, for now, he wants them to take away one key message: Labour has changed and can be trusted to govern again.

It’s easy to forget, with Labour flying ahead in the polls, that the last election was the worst result for the party since 1935. Labour had given the impression it was fighting among itself with no clear message to the country.

Now, Starmer talks about the “changed Labour Party” that is “back in the service of working people”. Labour, he says, puts “Country first, Party second”. Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves insists that Labour is “ready to serve, ready to lead and ready to rebuild Britain”. Again and again, you will see almost every Labour speech, interview and tweet weave this message in, whether subtly or explicitly.

Consistency, though, is no guarantee of authenticity. The message has to feel plausible to voters, who are instinctively sceptical of politicians above all other messengers. This is why the Conservatives are struggling to cut through with their own message that “the plan is working” and that voting Labour would take the country back to “square one”.

This message worked when voters’ memories of the financial crash and the fizzling out of the last Labour government were still fresh. But in 2024 – after 14 years of Conservative government, five prime ministers and seven chancellors – voters are entitled to be confused about what exactly that plan looks like anymore and where exactly square one is.

And to be effective a political message needs repeating by every messenger, not just those at the top. When divisions, dissatisfaction and even despair are clear for all to see the message becomes fragmented and there is even less chance of voters hearing it consistently or – more importantly – believing it.

While the audiences for our own communications work is very different, political messaging shows us the importance of identifying clear core messages that give a sense of direction.

Ensuring the broadest internal buy-in to those messages also makes it more likely that they will land effectively and authentically and that they will be played back organically from within the organisation.

And repeating them consistently over weeks, months and years demonstrates that leadership is committed to them and by extension to the course it has charted and is seeking to take people with them on.

So while we won’t have to face the voters at the end of it all, the lessons from politics might just help us after all.

This PRmoment Internal Comms Review is written by Fraser Raleigh is a Director of Public Affairs at SEC Newgate and a former political adviser.

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