PRmoment Leaders PRCA PA Mediapoint PA Assignments PRmoment Awards Winners North ESG & Sustainability Awards 2024 PRmoment Masterclass: Agency Growth Forum

The all-time most memorable PR moments from past General Elections campaigns

UK politicians often become embedded into pop-culture and meme culture, even when they aren’t doing an election campaign. Barely a day goes by when I don’t think about the odd look of mayhem on former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s face as he attempted to eat that bacon sandwich.

George Galloway pretending to be a cat on Celebrity Big Brother, on the other hand, is something I actively try to forget.

When General Elections are called, the PR teams work double time to keep the weirdness to a minimum, but Prime Minister Rishi Sunak broke the internet when he called the next UK General Election on 22 May in a deluge.

To make matters worse (ironically) anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray blasted Labour’s Things Can Only Get Better theme song by D:Reem. It took the media less than 24 hours to make rainy Rishi the splash, with headlines such as “drowned and out” making a mockery of him.

This PR blunder was swiftly followed by Rishi ducking out of the D-Day commemorations early last week so he could have a sit down with ITV. This really beggars belief, as surely his team could see the value of our Prime Minister spending the full length of time in Normandy and showing his respect over a sit down with ITV's Paul Brand? No disrespect to Paul, we are sure he is a lovely bloke, but he then threw himself under the bus again as during the interview our tone deaf PM bemoaned "going without" Sky TV as a child.  I bet his comms team are all at their wits end by now, as this D-Day gaffe has been compared to the infamous Gordon Brown "bigoted woman" fiasco of 2010.

If we are being treated to this level of high drama from Rishi Sunak's General Election journey while it is still in its infancy, we wondered what other memorable PR moments have happened over the years. We asked around and here's what the sector came up with: 

If Kinnock wins today...

Andy Barr, head yeti at 10Yetis: “Sadly, I am old enough to remember far too many political PR elections moments. The ones that I remember the most are always for the wrong reasons. Surely that is just the way of media life. Ed Milli-bland and his stone tablet based manifesto will always make me smile. A comms disaster of such epic proportions that it nearly made his bacon-sandwich-eating-face look normal. 

"John Selwyn Gummer forcing his daughter to eat a potentially Mad Cow Disease contaminated burger on the run up to the local elections, that forced Thatcher to eventually step down, is something that I am sure the Gummer family still talk about at Christmas get-togethers. For me though, I think that the PR, comms and lobbying team from the Conservative Party that convinced The Sun newspaper to come out for them in 1992 will always go down in PR folklore. The headline: "If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights?” will forever be remembered, and the comms team deserves a pat on the back. Kinnock was rumoured to be very close to winning until that point and it also demonstrates the power that the tabloid media wielded back then. Seems a long distance from the oh-so-funny TikTok meme campaigns that everyone is talking about in this year's election campaigns."

The Sun newspaper

The book of Miliband

Elizabeth Howlett, editor at PRmoment: "I had to jump in on the action here with my biggest General Election PR tragedy which is of course the 'EdStone' from Labour's 2015 election campaign. Its grand unveiling in the prestigious location of the Hastings and Rye marginal constituency carpark saw people flock to Twitter en masse to furiously, and rightly, take the Michael out of it.  

"According to The Spectator's Dan Hodges, the televised unveiling drove one Labour press officer to madness as he stood in the office 'just screaming over and over and over again at the screen'. Another party adviser said it only got through because the team were 'all distracted' by the SNP. He who is without sin should cast the first stone, but the final blow to the whole campaign which was supposed to really hammer home Miliband's pledge came from his own campaign vice chair Lucy Powell.

"Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live, Powell declared that despite the pledges being immortalised in stone, it didn't mean he 'is absolutely not going to break them or anything like that'. The whereabouts of the EdStone now remain a mystery, and the media has since compared its sudden disappearance to the Ark of the Covenant from Indiana Jones."

Labour pledge card

Rebecca Lury, partner at Pagefield: "The sign of a good PR campaign is when it is repeated over the years. Blair introduced the Labour pledge card in 1997, setting out his five ambitions for an incoming Labour government. A new idea at the time, they received widespread coverage, and the fact that they were also printed as physical cards meant that there was a leave-behind for canvassers to give voters as a reminder of Labour’s commitments. They were seen as so successful that they continued during future Labour campaigns, and whilst they were paused during the Corbyn years, Starmer has reignited them for the 2024 election."

The Sun backs Blair

Ollie Lane, managing director at PLMR Group: “Social media plays such a key role in election campaigns these days that it’s easy to forget the impact and resonance of The Sun’s front page backing Labour and Blair in 1997. Their endorsement, right at the start of the campaign and five years after their ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’ front page after nobbling Kinnock’s Labour on election day in 1992, was a huge moment. The Sun was in its pomp and that splash told the country – or at least its millions of readers – that Labour was a party they could now trust. And it guaranteed friendly coverage throughout the campaign. Whether The Sun saw a Labour win coming and wanted to back a winner or whether it influenced the vote, who knows. But Blair and Alastair Campbell had worked for four years to get Murdoch onside – so they must have thought it was worth the effort. And if we're judging solely by electoral results, it was."

The Sun newspaper

The Brexit campaign

David Alexander, managing director at Calacus PR: “Remain was a campaign that failed on so many levels. While the Brexiteers spoke of regaining British sovereignty, of hordes of refugees or citizens from Turkey flooding the UK; that the dishevelled NHS would have £350m more each week, the Remain campaign seemed to rely on assuming that maintaining closer links with Europe was a good thing. The benefits of free movement for students and flexible workers; the potential (ultimately realised) hike in prices and red tape; the lack of EU control over British laws; the lack of EU investment in areas of the UK that desperately needed it; the links to Winston Churchill and wider benefits being in Europe provide were all lost in the complacency of the debate by flag waving populists. Remain became synonymous with its opponents’ use of ‘Project Fear’ and lacked the personalities and the teamwork necessary to counter the Brexit BS.”

Two jabs Prescott

Lee Whitehill, director of communications at Whitehouse: "During the 2001 General Election I was working for the Labour Party in Scotland. On the day of the manifesto, it was a particularly busy afternoon and John Prescott punched a voter who had thrown an egg at him in Rhyl in North Wales. Soon after Helen Liddell, who was Secretary of State for Scotland, appeared [in the office] and made everyone put their phones down and stop what they were doing.  Remember, this was Labour's first election following the landslide in 1997 and we were worried whether or not we could pull it off again. Helen gathered the staff together and explained that this was a very serious and sombre moment that could define the campaign and potentially cost us the election. It was an incredibly tense time, but Blair's comments that followed set the tone. "It was regrettable, it was an instinctive reaction, John will be John". Blair took the issue on the chin, but his use of a light touch was echoed in the headlines the next day. Two Jags Prescott became Two Jabs and Labour cruised to another landslide."

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for free to our twice weekly editorial alert.

We have six email alerts in total - covering ESG, internal comms, PR jobs and events. Enter your email address below to find out more: