Latest > PR takeaways from the battle to be PM

5th Jun 2024

6 min read

PR takeaways from the battle to be PM

With the General Election almost upon us, last night the nation tuned in for the first major televised debate between the leaders of the country’s two main political parties, Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer. 

Naturally, we at eden PR were glued to our TV screens, as the Conservative and Labour leaders traded blow for blow, in a debate moderated by ITV’s news anchor, Julie Etchingham in Salford. Hats off to Julie, she had a very tough job in controlling the back and forth so that both voices could be heard… not an easy task! 

With just under a month until the country heads to the polling stations in what could be a seismic election, we are keen to share our PR takes on the outcome of last night’s debate. Here are a few thoughts from our team… 

Charlie Peters, Digital & Social Media Executive 

What role do televised debates play in 2024? I’d suggest that generating clippable moments that have the potential to go viral on social media is where they can have the most impact. By that metric, last night’s ITV head-to-head feels like a bit of a damp squib. 

The format didn’t help. With too many questions crammed into too little time, neither Starmer nor Sunak were able to get their often complex points across in full. But if the debate will be remembered for anything, it’s going to be the constant cross-talking between the two party leaders. How can you take anything of note from 60 minutes of talking over each other? 

It’s hard to say that anything of note was learned. Soundbite potential was limited, neither candidate particularly stood out from the other and frankly it’s difficult to see the debate having any noticeable impact on the results come July 4th. 

Conor Davies, PR Account Manager 

On an evening in which Sunak won in a snap poll by 51% to Starmer’s 49%, there were arguably few winners. The tactic of interrupting and shouting over one another might be commonplace in Parliament, but it came across as juvenile and was treated as such by viewers and debate moderator, Julie Etchingham. 

Sunak’s claims of Labour’s plans to take away £2,000 from individuals through a tax rise were also debunked as bogus by the end of the evening – yet Starmer did not do enough to prevent this from becoming the memorable rhetoric throughout the debate. This “£2,000 tax” line will now be engrained in voters’ heads – which of course was exactly Sunak’s goal. 

Ultimately, this “Sunak vs Starmer” debate, as it was advertised, brought up a whole new raft of questions. But the viewer couldn’t help but feel as though neither are the strongest in this realm – the seven-way debate planned for Friday 7th June could be chaotic, but could provide a bit more of the needed energy to really liven up this General Election campaign. 

Emily Winsor-Russell, Director & Head of New Business 

Before the two contenders even took to the stage last night, their PR campaigns were already well under way. 

What we find fascinating about a PR strategy of this scale is how poor planning for simple decisions can so quickly become defining moments, the molten middle of the political pie. 

For instance, take Sunak’s campaign team’s decision for him to be interviewed in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, where a journalist inevitably asked if he was, ‘the captain of a sinking ship.’ Could this obvious and groan-worthily awkward moment have been avoided with a simple change in location? Most certainly.  

Likewise, Starmer’s first few campaign trail days have been dogged by the Dianne Abbott row and swiftly deleted tweets from the long-standing MP about the potential PM’s propensity to lie. In a world when nothing is ever really ‘gone forever’, and with media scrutiny dialled up to full power until July 4th for even the tiniest peep of a scandal, we know how hard the respective candidates’ comms teams are working to keep negative comments from going viral. 

The wet-suit heavens-opened no-umbrella debacle aside (the multi-million pound media suite was clearly already booked for a more important event?), what we’ve also enjoyed dissecting from a PR perspective are the hopeful PMs’ campaign videos.  

Like chalk and cheese, the two couldn’t be more different. One speaks to the Gen Z, 1980s and younger Millennial audience with trendy specs, understated sweater and a green, blue sky background – focusing on the ‘us’ and the ‘we’ with several of his core team in shot throughout.  

The other presents tradition and status-quo from the first shot; the pristine suit and tie in the ivory tower of Downing Street, through the anticipation of the private helicopter landing at Chequers, to the (rather soggy) cufflink flick at the end.  

Even without analysing the words and stories in the videos, the battle lines have been drawn in the visual and emotion-provoking choices of presentation, image and backdrop. 

Isabel Jones, Joint Managing Director 

The level of expectation placed on this debate was arguably never going to be reached. No clear winners here it seems and many I’ve spoken to either switched off mentally and actually early into the programme.  

For those still to make their mind up based on the arguments put forward by the 2 men taking to the podiums, it seems they were left wanting – with just too many questions left unaddressed and too much time spent on the blame game rather than solid, tangible future plans that could capture hearts and minds. In short, Sunak has nothing to lose and Starmer has everything to lose – which will never make for an even debate. 

Tuning into the later media round ups offered far more insight and information – so maybe lessons to learn for both camps here. 

The mix of BBC2 Newsnight’s Victoria Derbyshire, Piers Morgan and Mick Lynch was much more watchable as was Channel 4’s broadcast of The Rest is Politics podcast duo, Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart.   

If either party wants to take charge of their own communications vehicles they are going to have to up their game considerably.  

As the campaign trails ramp up in intensity, the clock is ticking for Sunak and Starmer to convince a volatile electorate as to why their party deserves your vote, with the next televised debate scheduled to be a seven-party show in London, hosted by the BBC’s Mishal Husain on Friday 7th June.  

We’ll be tuning in to see the next chapter of this fraught battle as it plays out across the nation, followed by the final debate which will be held in our very own city on June 26th. 

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Written by

Conor Davies

Ever since he began crafting football match reports at the age of 7, Conor has always had a passion for writing and creating strong pieces of content. The feeling of landing a huge piece of coverage, too, always goes down well.

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