The public has rightfully become a hell of a lot more cynical about politicians’ intentions and seems to resonate most with those who at least seem to have one foot in the real world. For some, knowing the price of a loaf of bread is an impossible challenge, and they must find other ways to seem relatable to commoners like you and I.
After Brexit, the pandemic, and now the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, the importance of politicians being relatable and likeable has never been so high.
“The important thing is to win people over,” says Kelly Millar, founder and CEO of public relations and branding consultancy KM Transformational.
“One thing that is important is building trust and credibility. Historically, politicians have struggled to be transparent. But the public has a right to know things about them that we wouldn’t expect to know about others.”
Our current Prime Minister is as good of a place to start as any. Rishi Sunak would probably be best off canvassing popularity among the ‘short kings’ community but, presumably by standing on a box in the Commons, he has gone largely (ha) unnoticed by them. That, or they are misunderstanding the meaning of ‘uncharacteristically long-standing PM.”
Instead, he has painted himself as a committed fan of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. Nothing more relatable than a billion-pound global conglomerate – and this could have just about worked, if he didn’t 1) lie about having been to maccies in the last three years, or 2) tell two children about his coke addiction.
Confessing to being a “total coke addict” might well be admirable during an NA meeting, but is decidedly less so when faced with two primary school kids. Admittedly, they must have been pretty good interviewers because he also owned up to collecting Coca-Cola memorabilia, a hobby with no purpose aside from impressing ten-year-olds.
Just last year he failed to understand how to use contactless payment when buying a Coke. Footage of him attempting to pay by waving a card around in front of a barcode scanner begs the question, has this man ever been in a shop before?
Speaking generally about similar publicity stunts, Kelly says, “It looks staged. People know that, we have a smart public. These stunts are outdated. It can kind of work and people think it’s great, but most see through it. It’s not sustainable or effective. If you are really going to build a brand, you want to make it relatable and personal.”
Sunak’s sugary fast-food vices don’t come without their health risks. After seven fillings, he seems to be aware of this, and is up by 6am for a Peloton workout to a Britney Spears soundtrack. Sacrificing breakfast and still heating his pool isn’t quite what we meant by ‘heating vs eating,’ but Sunak follows his workout with a fast until mid-morning just to be sure.
And he’s not the only one dropping pounds. We’ll all remember, fondly I’m sure, Liz Truss’ spectacular tanking of the pound to its lowest level ever against the dollar last September. She will undoubtedly be best remembered for her so-called ‘Trussonomics’, but for publicity pros, her social media profiles are a close second.
“They need help. They need people who know how to do this properly,” says Kelly, speaking generally about politicians’ social media. “Personal branding can make or break your reputation.”
And this isn’t the only reputation on Truss’ mind.
A Taylor Swift appearance on a Prime Minister’s Instagram was absolutely not on any PR manager’s 2022 bingo card, least of all with ‘#squadgoals #trouble’ in the caption. The post, from early 2019, could be written off as a one-off celebrity encounter if she hadn’t walked out at the final Tory Leadership hustings to Taylor’s song Change.
To our knowledge, only one of Truss’ fangirl moments made it into Hansard, after she quoted The Man on International Women’s Day in 2020. She said to the House of Commons, “This government’s role is to remove barriers for women, so it is your talent ideas and character that matter and not anything else. So that, in the words of the brilliant Taylor Swift in her new song, women aren’t left ‘running as fast as they can, wondering if they’d get there quicker if they were a man'”.
Some die-hard Swifties were troubled by this. “It made me a bit horrified,” says Isabel Butterworth, founder and president of Sheffield’s Taylor Swift Society. “She is a Tory, so it’s that association between someone you love and someone you really don’t like. And then you worry people would associate you with Liz Truss.”
I apologise for associating her with Liz Truss, having asked her to comment, to which she accuses me of “causing [her] to have war flashbacks”.
Of politicians with similar views to herself or non-political public figures being ‘relatable’, Isabel admits, “I think I would warm to them a bit more. It’s a common interest, and that’s how you make friends in the real world.
“In general, if a public figure was a fan of Taylor Swift, I would be like ‘slay’. But if it was Hitler, I would be like, ‘Oh no’.”
She shows me a photo of Taylor on her phone screen. “Taylor has that connectedness with her fans. She is a real comfort. Sometimes though, it’s hard being a Swiftie, because people make fun of you a lot.”
For Truss, this was probably best highlighted in an ending credits montage on Channel 4, signalling both the end of the evening news and her premiership, set to Blank Space by Taylor.
“The montage made me laugh, it is funny. The trouble is the Venn diagram between Taylor Swift fans and Tories, is just…” she motions two entirely separate circles and shrugs. “Maybe Truss was just trying to get the girlies to like her.”
And it almost worked. Despite her fangirl moments giving people – and public broadcasters – the opportunity to take the piss, no one could accuse her of faking her love for Taylor. It’s certainly a more relatable passion than collecting Coca-Cola merchandise, anyway.
“Having hobbies and passions makes us human,” Kelly adds. “We might like it if it’s some musician they are obsessed with. Revealing that part of yourself makes you very human.”
It’s unlikely that any Taylor Swift fans would have been swayed to vote for Truss, should the opportunity have appeared. Still, no one could call Truss’ Swiftie tendencies inauthentic, and as a result, she came off to many as a little more endearing.
Kelly notes that presenting hobbies or passions to the public should at least have some kind of purpose. Whether that’s by portraying relatability, credibility, or showing past successes, they should not be “totally off-piste”.
“You always have to think about how you are adding value, and shouldn’t overshare,” she says. “We just need to know enough to get a little window into your humanness.”
Former PM and lifelong buffoon Boris Johnson took the importance of little windows a tad too seriously in 2019 when he stuttered for three straight minutes about making London buses out of wine boxes.
Googling ‘Boris Johnson bus’ now comes up with tens of articles about this fascinating hobby. The infamous Brexit bus, which promised £350 million a week to the NHS and the clip of him saying that a pensioner who rides the bus all day to stay warm should be “grateful” for her free bus pass, are both buried.
“Uh, I… I like to… paint. Oh, I make things. I like to – I make – I have a thing where I make models of… [unintelligible],” he told The Guardian, a strong start to a very promising sentence.
“We built beautiful… I make buses, I make models of buses, I get old, I don’t know, wooden crates, right? And then I paint them. It’s a box that has been used to contain two wine bottles. It will have a… dividing thing. So I turn it into a bus. I put passengers… you really want to know this?” Yes, we do.
“I paint, I paint the passengers enjoying themselves on the wonderful bus.”
No doubt his very real and totally not-made-up models have more recent timely slogans painted down the side. Maybe “it was a meeting, not a party” or “on-board free heating for pensioners”.
“Trying to deceive the public is a turn-off,” Kelly says, speaking on publicity campaigns in general. “People are more likely to find someone endearing if it is shown in a real context. “
“You will always be heavily scrutinised in the media or politics. Taking a stand on something is always going to lead to having people who disagree. It is better to be authentic, as then people will respect you. Then you are walking the walk,” she says.
Kelly cannot share examples of political clients she works with, having signed NDAs with 95% of them.
Based on the emphasis she places on trustworthiness and authenticity, we’re safe to assume she stayed far away from this triple threat of publicity nightmares, also known as one year’s worth of UK Prime Ministers.