When Margaret Thatcher launched a task force to retake the Falklands from Argentine forces, her message was simple: she was defending the rights of the islanders to self-determination. In 1982, after years of domestic inertia, economic stagnation and government infighting, the British public endorsed this decisive act- and it won her a landslide reelection a year later. No doubt this political mythology of standing up to the external aggressor was in another female Conservative PM’s mind when she condemned the Kremlin for the “brazen” use of a nerve agent in Salisbury which put an ex-spy and his daughter in critical condition, the first officer on the scene in intensive care and posed an enormous risk to the surrounding area. Russia -which denies involvement but has not provided any evidence to counter the claim- deployed its Foreign minister Lavrov who accused the Brits of wanting to distract from Brexit. He is -ignoring the sinister suggestion of conspiracy- half right. Like Thatcher, May has risen to a challenge with dignity and cool-headedness. In the post-Brexit world the expression of the UK’s global integrity and standing is a priority. It’s too soon to tell whether this will translate into lasting political favour. But as we can see from May’s visit to Salisbury this week, which featured the unlikely sight of the PM fist-bumping a member of the crowd, the Maybot has come into her element.
In many ways it is perverse to talk about who ‘comes out on top’ of an event as tragic as what happened in Salisbury. Yet it is increasingly in the nature of politics to see point scoring in every event, no matter how heinous. Thanks to how embedded social media has become in news reporting a proliferation of viewpoints is immediate and agenda-setting. A political attack demands a political response; Jeremy Corbyn’s weakness on Russia is countermanded by donations to the Tories from Russian Oligarchs. Politicising tragedy can an effective: Labour did not flinch at equating Grenfell with austerity, and -according to yougov data- the public were broadly onboard with this message. Yet the risks of it backfiring are manifold. The reason May has earned respect for her response is precisely because she did not directly invoke politics. That NATO allies have rallied around Britain is a validation.
In contrast, defence secretary Gavin Williamson -who seems to be auditioning to take over from Kevin Spacey in his very own House of Cards- went full attack dog, telling Russia to “shut up”and “go away” and alluded to the strong possibility of further sanctions. None of these messages had been approved by Number Ten. As with David Cameron’s war of words with Putin, strength was interpreted as cocksure arrogance; like the former PM Williamson only succeeded in antagonizing the Russian bear. Rather than our Frank Underwood, Williamson may turn out to be the Frank Spencer of British politics. Equally, the clarity of May’s message has been enhanced by the many-headed hydra that is an official Labour party position. Although Corbyn’s current position (as of writing, 11.30 am on Friday) is more or less the same as May’s, his tone has been consistent with his long-held attitude that picking fights with other countries isn’t very nice and everyone should stick to their own allotments. As with much of Corbyn’s virtue philosophy, political self-harm can be desirable.
The communications risks of leveraging serious issues for personal advantage go well beyond politics. For brands there is crucial balance to strike between embracing progressive strategies of diversifying the workplace and what it can realistically deliver. Get called out and, no matter how hard you’ve tried, you’re back to square one. This week, for example, it was revealed that the pay gap at ITN is almost twice that of the BBC, largely due to the lack of diversity in its senior positions. As Cathy Newman, presenter of the ITN-produced Channel 4 News, pointed out this is a great irony given that “journalists at ITN have been robust in tackling the BBC on this issue”. To be exposed as half-pregnant can be more of a PR headache than being barren in the shadows.