Few politicians in recent history have polarised views as much as the late Margaret Thatcher. As well as leaving behind a host of significant societal legacies, her 11 years in office saw a transformation of British political communications.
The Thatcher era ushered in a new approach to communicating with the electorate, employing techniques not previously used by British political parties, achieving a notable first when the Conservatives appointed an advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi
In the run up to the 1979 election, which saw Margaret Thatcher take up residence in 10 Downing Street, the partnership started to change the face of political advertising. The poster campaign Labour Isn't Working, featuring a long, snaking queue alongside the three word headline, became emblematic. And spawned countless copycats.
It is perhaps no surprise that, following her death, Saatchi & Saatchi produced a full page newspaper advertising campaign featuring a black and white portrait of Lady Thatcher with the epitaph The best client we ever had.
But during her time in power, Thatcher's team produced several high profile television advertising campaigns to get the Conservative Party's message across. As well as knocking the Labour Party, advertising was also used to encourage ordinary Britons to buy shares in newly privatised companies.
Beckett explains: 'She came to power at the moment when the Saatchis were reinventing advertising. And at the same time, the Tories realised that the old fashioned political communications tactics, such as leaflets and podium speeches, weren't working.'
Thatcher's administration also centralised Number 10 communications in an unprecedented way. Many experts argue the effectiveness of her communications operation paved the way for the creation of Alastair Campbell's Number 10 Strategic Communications Unit.
'A lot of the control and communications techniques you saw under New Labour were all there under her press secretary [Sir] Bernard Ingham but in an era before 24 hour news,' notes Iain Anderson, co-founder and director at Cicero
Sir Bernard may have been a civil servant (as indeed were all Prime Ministers' press secretaries at that time) but he is often likened to Campbell for his ability to set the tone. 'It started a tradition of having a powerful person at your side who was in control and maintained a consistency of message,' observes Jon McLeod, chair, corporate communications and public affairs at Weber Shandwick
Thatcher's Monty Python moment
Thatcher was also one of the first Prime Ministers to build and harness a stock of advisers, notes Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA
. The team, which included her adviser Lord Bell, now chairman of Bell Pottinger Private
, were deployed to good effect.
'She had a famously bad sense of humour and no understanding of double entendres but if she was advised to tell the joke she would deliver it,' explains Ingham.
When the Liberal Democrats unveiled a new party symbol in 1990, Thatcher's speechwriter John O'Sullivan thought it resembled a dead parrot rather than the intended bird in flight. He decided that part of Thatcher's party conference speech would include a section of Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch. There was one snag: the Prime Minister had not heard of Monty Python.
She rehearsed the joke several times, but remained unconvinced and asked to see the sketch. She didn't find it remotely funny but performed her rendition with perfect comic timing much to the delight of supporters at that year's Bournemouth Conservative Party conference.
As well as her team of speechwriters, which also included Ronald Millar, who wrote the immortal line The lady's not for turning, Thatcher was helped by Harvey Thomas, head of presentations at Conservative Central Office, who organised some of her most memorable rallies and speeches, and Gordon Reece, a former television producer who worked as her political strategist and is credited with revamping her image. Reece is also said to have organised vocal coaching, which reportedly helped lower the pitch of her voice.
Beckett believes Thatcher's speechwriters and advisers borrowed corporate communications tactics and channelled them into political communications. 'They drew on tactics from the corporate sector,' he says. 'They used symbolism and catchphrases rather than lectures.'
McLeod notes that her administration's attention to image was another political communication tactic that had not really been seen before. 'The keynote suits in electric Tory blue were all implements of political communication and she used them to tremendous effect,' he explains.
It is sometimes said that big hair frightens voters but those worries didn't concern Thatcher. 'The creation of the edifice that was her hairstyle added four inches to her height and became a permanent monument throughout her political career,' adds McLeod.
Thatcher wasn't the first Prime Minister to consider image as part of the mix but she took it further, according to Beckett, adding: 'While Tony Benn had cooked up gimmicks, like suggesting [former Labour Prime Minister] Harold Wilson use a pipe to give him an air of geniality, she approached it as a complete package.'
'The real leap made by Thatcher was to shift from Wilson's defensive 'dealing' with the media to her 'exploiting' the media,' says Andrew Caesar-Gordon, managing director of media training company Electric Airwaves. Indeed, her team pioneered PR tactics, such as the staged politicians' photo opportunity, that are still used today.
'When I worked at the BBC in the mid-80s we debated whether we should cover these photo opportunities or whether they constituted government propaganda,' Beckett recalls. 'Today, these beautifully choreographed photo opportunities are used by Cameron, Clegg and Miliband as part of everyday political life. I bet [Thatcher] never shopped when she was Prime Minister but she would be filmed talking to other women in a shop about the price of milk.'
While some of Thatcher's communications tactics are now commonplace, her approach was arguably less PR-driven than some of her successors.
McLeod argues: 'On one hand she had no interest in communications techniques; on other hand she made full use of them. She wouldn't bother fiddling in order to give her budget some sort of lift off and she didn't think in the short term. She thought ideologically, and if you are pursuing an ideological path, you roll with the punches.'
For example, it has often been said that Thatcher did not require a focus group to tell her what to believe while, in contrast, the Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair was often accused of ruling by focus group during his premiership.
Thatcher's refusal to back down on the issue of poll tax also stands in stark contrast to the current Government's u-turn last year on the trivial issue of pasty tax, where VAT was to be levied on hot pies. 'In the end Thatcher's ability to control message lost its salience and she paid the price,' argues McLeod.
Approach to campaigning
'The Thatcher campaigns were well focused and the Tories were more disciplined in planning than the Labour party, but Blair, Campbell and Mandelson reversed that,' Ingham observes.
Cicero's Anderson notes that some of the Tory campaigning strategy was then ahead of the game, drawing on more advanced US political campaigning techniques.
'These days we talk about micro targeting [using market segmentation to target specific audiences] in the Obama campaign,' says Anderson. 'In Thatcher's day, it was more about macro targeting.'
The Tories seized upon the changing demographics to mobilise a new support base in the form of aspirational homeowners.
'It was comparable to [political consultant] Karl Rove's strategy for George W Bush which sought to secure 50 plus one per cent of the popular vote. In Thatcher's case, she consistently got 42 per cent of the electorate which helped her gain landslide majorities in 1983 and 1987,' explains Anderson.
Thatcher also borrowed other tactics from US politicians. She was the first British politician to use an autocue [for a party conference speech] and is credited with introducing soundbites.
Elinor Goodman, political editor of Channel 4 News between 1988 to 2005, once said: 'She used her eyebrows as quotation marks in case you didn't know what the soundbite was.'
Thatcher was an undoubtedly formidable orator but she operated with enviable support from the national newspapers. 'In Thatcher's era, Ingham was still able to wield more control than Campbell was. The media were more deferential and it was before the days of rolling news channels,' Beckett notes.
The PRCA's Ingham adds: 'She also recognised the power of newspapers in particular and she doled out peerages to paper editors with gay abandon. This probably helped sustain the right wing press.'
At the same time, she had a reputation for intimidating journalists. Sir Max Hastings, the veteran British journalist, once likened interviewing her to being 'hit by a truck'. Beckett explains: 'It's partly about gender; there's nothing that scares male journalists more than a strong woman.'
But Thatcher's reign also had an impact on local government communications that endures today. David Walker, director, Getstats at the Royal Statistical Society
, who was local government correspondent for The Times
during her time in office, reflects on how the concentration of power at the centre and national media support for Thatcher affected local government communications.
'Councils up and down the country, not all Labour controlled, used media imaginatively, so much so that Thatcher legislated to control their spending on publicity,' he explains.
The 1986 Local Government Act mandated councils to account for expenditure on 'publicity' and make it available for inspection by members of the public. This followed the 1985 Widdicombe Committee of Inquiry into the Conduct of Local Authority Business, which concluded there was insufficient transparency around spending on local government communications.
The legislation was introduced against a background of high profile campaigns by the Greater London Council (GLC) and other authorities facing abolition. GLC head Ken Livingstone put posters on the sides of London buses and bus shelters.
'It was also the first time we'd seen local authorities using advertising,' Walker recalls. 'Local authorities would say We are just trying to tell our side of the story and central government would reply This is politicisation but local government would maintain they were just trying to keep people informed.'
Local authorities sought to exploit the difference between print and broadcast during Thatcher's rule. 'In a sense the broadcast media fought the strength of Thatcherism in printed press,' explains Walker. 'It had to take a different line and this was interpreted by the Thatcher Government as a critical one.'
Livingstone used broadcast media to transmit his message. 'He was the first local government to have a plan for broadcast media,' says Walker. 'For one reason or another, the Thatcher government's messaging about local councils did not go very well. I would say she won the policy war in councils but local government won the PR war.'
But despite her obvious success at communications, political experts remain unclear about whether all Thatcher's tactics would prove as effective today.
The centralisation of messaging, the carefully crafted photo opportunity and the importance of advisers remain relevant to political communications today but Thatcher's political advertising would have been far less effective, McLeod argues.
'By 1997 that broadsheet approach had run out of stream and had become irrelevant and outdoor media became a clumsy tool,' he says. 'It has become anachronistic.'
That has not deterred recent attempts, such as Cameron's campaign message We can't go on like this, I' ll cut the deficit not the NHS, which appeared on billboards up and down the country before the last general election.
Many billboards were defaced. Editing versions of Cameron's face accompanied by alternative tongue-in-cheek messages became a pastime for adversaries of the Conservative party.
This is perhaps a sign of the times in this era of high scepticism. Indeed, Beckett notes, that another of Thatcher's communications tactics, the stage managed photo opportunities also now arouse suspicion. 'The photo opportunity thing has lost its power,' he says.
Rob Blackie, managing director of Blue State Digital
, agrees that the public are less receptive to these political communications tactics.
'Thatcher and her team would have struggled in the Internet age because she was used to a traditional, relatively deferential, media, that moved slowly,' he adds. 'I can only imagine that the Government would have descended into disloyalty and coup attempts much earlier under the pressure of the dilemma between listening to the Conservative membership or the broader population of the country.
'Imagine how she would have had to deal with ConservativeHome haranguing her on how her policies weren't right wing enough, while receiving several hundred thousand emails from 38 Degrees
members.' [38 Degrees brings together people to take action on issues that matter to them and bring about change.]
Yet other tactics that were finessed in the Thatcher era, such as the obsession with image, remain just as relevant. 'Take Ed Miliband's operation to improve his voice,' McLeod notes. 'Thatcher understood how you appear is 9/10 of your message. Message control and discipline are classic communications tactics but the ideological underpinning is now past its sell by date.'
Three changes Thatcher brought, according to Lord Bell
When Denis Healey, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, stood up in the House of Commons to criticise the Conservative Party's Labour isn't working poster campaign on the grounds that the people pictured in the snaking queue were not genuinely unemployed, he unwittingly gave the campaign free publicity, claims Lord Bell, former adviser to the late Lady Thatcher.
'He made a great song and dance about it. His comments gave us hundreds of hours of free publicity on television and in print,' recalls Bell, chairman of Bell Pottinger Private. 'He called the campaign phoney because he claimed we used actors in the queue. He didn't get his facts right.' They were actually young Conservatives from Hendon.
The now famous advertising campaign, that put both Margaret Thatcher and Saatchi & Saatchi on the map, was one of three dramatic changes to political campaigning that the Conservatives embraced in the run up to the 1979 election.
'Almost everything before that had been dull,' recalls Bell, who worked at Saatchi & Saatchi at the time. 'Most communications had been about talking heads and strident demands.' There had been a handful of memorable advertisements, he claims, but no party had launched an extended advertising campaign, underpinned by political strategy.
It was one of three things that the Conservatives did in the run up to the 1979 election that Bell believes changed the future of political advertising. The second was to change the format of the Party Political Broadcast. Aware of the success of political advertising on American television, but constrained by blanket restrictions on advertising on British television, Saatchi & Saatchi repositioned the Conservative's Party Political Broadcast. 'We didn't do talking heads. We created a film that was, in effect, a long commercial and brought to the broadcast the disciplines of advertising and film making,' he recalls.
The third thing that the campaign did differently was to recognise the power of television. 'We had decided that this would be a television election. What happened on television was fantastically important,' he explains.
Bell downplays the suggestion that he and Lady Thatcher's former political adviser Sir Gordon Reece smartened up her image for television, including advising her to soften her tone, describing such stories as 'made up by the media'.
He adds: 'We didn't write her speeches - they were written by her speech writing team - but we had an influence over phrasing, such as You turn if you want to and making sure she used them. The campaign really used the power of advertising people to take a complex message and turn it into four words. It was product of its time and nothing like it has been seen since.'
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