From the ‘longest suicide note in history’ to an election upset within a month – just how did Jeremy Corbyn turn it around?
If we ever needed an example to extol the priceless value of good communication, this is it.
Though Corbyn ultimately came up short of an election triumph, his party’s gains still represented one of the biggest political turnarounds in British history.
Within four weeks, Labour had captured the imagination of the British public by mobilising their target community through the power of effective engagement, particularly using social media channels. They succeeded, not by throwing money at the problem, but by simply delivering a clear message, using the right channels.
How the communications battle was won
Labour’s success in using social media during the election campaign is well documented.
According to social media monitoring company NewsWhip, the number of people engaged with the party’s official Facebook pages was between 100,000 and 400,000 in May, surging to close to 1 million between 5-8 June.
With the vast variety of channels available to us, choosing the right channel or channel mix is critical to our success.”
By comparison, the Conservative’s Facebook engagement ran below 100,000 until early June, when it rose modestly (not exactly a term you associate with successful social media) to around 200,000 in the final days.
So what can we learn from this and, more importantly, how can we bottle this model and use it to inspire our target audiences? Here are five of the secrets behind Corbyn’s success. Overall, Corbyn’s personal Facebook page registered 4,360,000 engagements between 8 May and 8 June, with Theresa May’s achieving just 554,000 – hardly surprising given that Corbyn’s team posted 217 times, compared to May’s 57 posts.
1. Match your channel to your target audience and message
With the vast variety of channels available to us, choosing the right channel or channel mix is critical to our success.
During the election campaign, the Labour Party capitalised on the fact that their target community used channels that the Conservative’s were less comfortable with.
This gave them the opportunity to ‘own’ the most influential channel of our generation: social media and video.
All that work would have been useless though, had all the pieces not fitted into place.
You could argue that Theresa May lost the battle of video and social media before it even began, simply because she lacked empathy or an authentic voice on these channels.”
In internal communication, there is no point winning the social media battle if your audience doesn’t have access to social media or technology at work.
Likewise, coupling social media with the wrong message (such as redundancies or changes to working conditions) can be extremely damaging. So match your channel to your message and your audience every time you communicate.
2. Be real and empathise
Success on social media is not just about who posts the most or the popularity of the content. It’s also about ‘being real’.
Social media users will know if you’re faking it so, if you do choose social media as a communications tool, make sure whoever posts loves and understands the channel, is comfortable using it, and knows the dos and don’ts of how to post or respond (if you need convincing, remember Ed Balls Day).
In fact, you could argue that Theresa May lost the battle of video and social media before it even began, simply because she lacked empathy or an authentic voice on these channels.
In contrast, Corbyn had lived out his struggles in the public eye, portraying a vulnerability that endeared him to many. His example illustrates how people expect their leaders to be open, humble and honest, not perfect or polished.
In our line of work, that means communicating the good with the bad and being frank rather than papering over the cracks.
It can also mean going to the audience, not waiting for them to come to you, something that was dramatically illustrated by the two leaders’ differing approaches in the wake of the Grenfell fire disaster later in June.
3. Share continually and consistently
Theresa May’s decision not to take part in a seven-way TV debate is another example of communication misjudgement making her appear aloof to voters.
While we can say the election communication battle was won on social media, this underestimates the efforts Labour made to connect with people face to face”
In the age of social media, the public demand access and visibility from their leaders or role models – they want a relationship, and sharing is essential.
For us as communicators or leaders it shows the importance of never ‘going missing’, especially in a crisis.
It illustrates the need to keep up communication, even when the messages aren’t easy or when the debate could be damaging or uncomfortable.
As Labour’s Facebook engagement shows, their interaction with their community was consistent and continual, regardless of how things were going.
4. Capture the spirit of the times
While we can say the election communication battle was won on social media, this underestimates the efforts Labour made to connect with people face to face.
Labour’s election surge was more about reaching people across a variety of channels than success in any one area.
In fact, their success was built on the foundations of insight. By talking to the people and judging the mood, they captured the spirit of the times in a way that the media and political commentators seemed to miss.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Donald Trump had pulled off the same trick several months earlier with similar results, but an even more dramatic outcome.
Trump also mobilised his target demographic on a fraction of the budget of his competitors and, like Corbyn, he won the engagement battle largely on social media and through personal appearances.
Though at opposite ends of the political spectrum, both truly connected with the communities they wanted to engage with.
Equally strikingly, the impact of both politicians showed how the influence of mainstream media is not as strong as it once was compared to social media. For instance, research following the general election showed 30 per cent of Sun readers voted Labour, despite the paper’s negative reporting on Corbyn’s campaign.
It shows the importance of getting out into the community to get a feel of what matters and to ensure your engagement feels like a conversation, not one-way communication.
5. Make the most of what you’ve got
Finally, what Corbyn’s success shows is the importance of maximising your resources.
As communicators, we are lucky enough to live in a time where engagement success is no longer linked to the biggest budget.
Resources are important, but the trick is more about going back to basics.
Let’s say you want to re-connect with an old friend. Would your opening gambit be to send them an expensive, glossy document detailing all that you’ve been doing since you last saw them? Or would your first instinct be to drop by and ask them how they’re doing?
The value of skilled communicators has rarely been higher, but our challenge is to offer those skills while also thinking like members of our community, not like a ‘communications team’.
If we can do that, we will be some way to improving our communications.