The Spin Behind the Win: PR in Politics

It’s election time again. Groan.

For most people in Northern Ireland it’s a nightmare period of return to sectarian messages and political bluff all over the airwaves, as our supposed “power-sharing” government reverts back into their respective caves in order to secure tribal votes.

I don’t pretend to be interested in politics. Nor do I pretend to have faith in it. But once a government is in place, most of us in PR do have to be knowledgeable about it, engage with it and ultimately lobby it, regardless of the keen differences between ourselves and our Public Affairs counterparts.

What I don’t have to pretend to be interested and knowledgeable about is the PR behind politics.

The Spin Behind The Win.

PR and Politics have been inextricably linked since the early days of bringing the art and the science together (as “Father of Propoganda” Edward Bernays described it). Although often referred to as political communication; canvassing and campaigning in electoral terms pretty much follows the same lines as PR with the ultimate aim to influence public opinion.

Here in Northern Ireland, our main political parties aren’t just good at the basics - such as promoting new candidates, communicating party policies and constituency relations - our local politicos have become experts in true “spin” over the years. They can bounce back from scandals. They can walk the microscopic tightrope between staying true to their (oft-hardline) grass-roots voters while also playing the role of forward-thinking change activists for all. Some of them can even get a hold of my electoral register details and put a card through my door that looks too much like a polling card and TELL ME who to vote for.

I have to give them (or more likely, their advisors) respect for this strategic promotion, if nothing else.

But this year, a new party emerged and they’re quickly moving up from last place to what must be a most uncomfortable position in the race for our longer serving politicians. NI21 have positioned themselves to fill the gap for younger voters, non-tribal voters, forward-thinking voters and basically anyone fed up with the status quo. Now various other parties have sprung up over the years claiming to campaign for the same policies. And they have all failed shortly after.

So what makes NI21 such a runaway-PR success?

- Modern visuals: it’s not only the colours which set the party apart in our lanscape (using as they do a mix of blue and green which completely stands out against our normal green/white/orange versus red/white/blue) but also the social media graphics which are eye-catching, hard-hitting and also humorous. This has been done before, particularly with billboard campaigns in the UK. The difference? Instead of attacking a main opponent party, they’re communicating a message of almost boredom with current politics in general. They have tapped into the public consicousness.

- Mixing channels: NI21 could have fallen foul of looking like a “student party” because so much of their messaging appeals to younger people and is distributed via social media. However, they have also partaken where they can in typical political campaigning activities - billboards, lampost boards, radio talkshows, Hustings events and, most notably, door-to-door canvassing. It’s most notable because, unlike other parties, they’re actually chronicalling their canvass journey through images online showing the “ordinary people” who are supporting them every day. Their story is also very different from other parties, as seen in a drastic change of direction in their Party Election Broadcast. This mix of channels and use of storytelling is very reminiscent of the Obama “Change” campaign of 2008.

- New faces: Normally in Northern Ireland, it seems that you have to be bred for politics, or at least “trained in the ways of the Dark Force” by a particular party before you would ever be let loose on the local council constituents, let alone allowed on TV to answer policy questions. This doesn’t seem to be the case for NI21, who opened their doors to anyone interested in “#freshpolitics” regardless of experience. I’m sure they had some form of background check, as with any employer, but it’s refreshing to see new faces, it’s encouraging for the campaign to change the public perception of young people and, interestingly, it has surfaced far less “dodgy past” photo scandals than the newer members of other established parties. Hmmmm I wonder why…

- Old faces: Of course a completely new party of new policies and new faces could be a little bit frightening for voters here. The public still likes a sense of brand trust and that’s hard to build from scratch. So with Basil and John at the helm, the public can have faith that among the newcomers, there are “old hands” guiding the ship who at least know the intricacies of how councils and the Assembly work. This lends credibility and a sense of security to the party as a group.

- Beautiful contradictions: I hate to mention this issue, because I find party Chair Tina McKenzie to be many things other than her family history including articulate, beautiful, intelligent, professional, a mother, a wife. But there is no denying that a Catholic Woman of a Political Prisoner Father in a Pro-Union Party is the stuff of political PR dreams here. But those facts alone would not be enough to dominate the agenda for the length of the campaign trail. It is Tina’s response to the constant questions that have made it a PR success. Far from hiding it, dodging it or excusing it. It is what it is and it is not WHO she is.

Now NI21 have had their share of questionning on whether they are more than a sense of a humour, more than spin. They can point to their policies which, although differing on ISSUE from some of the other parties, they are as well developed on DETAIL as any manifestos I’ve read. Most radically, none of the policies seem to be linked to religious belief, hurts of the past or “them vs us”.

So do they get my vote? On PR effort alone, absolutely.


  1. Leanne, a very interesting perspective.

    I agree that NI21 communications output in the form visuals and videos are as you mentioned ‘eye-catching, hard-hitting and also humorous’. Although in saying that, It would be very hard for me to make a decision to vote for any party based on there PR efforts. My vote for a party or candidate would depend on what they are doing for their constituency and how they are best serving the average punter or OAP looking for a chat and a cup of tea. Great visuals does not equate to a great party.

    Also, the phase “Don’t vote what your parents vote”, I feel dishonors parents and makes them obsolete. Parents set the example for children and I would hope that children take the example and advise their children on who to vote for, in my small number of years being a child, I have learnt that more often that not, parents are always right. (Of course this depends on personal experience).

    Again a very interesting perspective which made me think and even comment. Good job!!!

    • Thanks for the comment Isaac and, although I agree with how you would choose to vote, I think you have to understand the extent of “tribal voting” and then understand the community I’m from to appreciate why NI21’s message resonates strongly for me, as it does for others. I would love to vote based on policies, practice and constituency performance but up to now I was told who to vote for. Not because they were a good choice, but to keep “the others” out of power. And even if I had voted differently, there wasn’t a great choice to be fair. So for me, NI21’s brave decision to run when faced with large tribal votes, mixed with strong, forward-thinking policies, ADDED TO a great campaign, are the reasons they would secure my vote. I hope that clarifies the position for you. L

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