Party conference season is almost upon us. This peculiar travelling circus of the suited and booted is a kind of middle-of-the-road Glastonbury without the music and mud – a trade show with a few vaguely-recognisable politicians thrown in for good measure. We know – we’ve been going for years. It’s an odd mix of politicians, policy makers and wonks, lobbyists and PRs, hacks and activists. So what do comms professionals need to know about party conference PR strategies?
The politicians and activists are obliged to attend just one conference each autumn. The rest travel from city to city, seaside resort to seaside resort, Premier Inn to Premier Inn looking increasingly dishevelled and institutionalised. And no matter which conference, the lobbyists, PRs and journalists outnumber the party faithful.
The first issue to address is should your organisation attend? The answer to that is that it depends on who your target audience is. If politicians, journalists and lobbyists are in your line of sight, then party conference is the place to be.
Not only do these events offer excellent networking opportunities, they also give you the chance to “temperature check” the political mood and can help you better understand who and what is driving the policy and media agenda – which in turn will impact on how and who you engage with as part of your communications strategy. In addition, if budget allows, you have the option of using conference to get your own message ago via the exhibition stalls and by hosting, speaking on or sponsoring events.
In this somewhat artificial world, what’s the best way to do PR? Here are a handful of thoughts:
1. Avoid the party politics
In a piece on party conference PR, Tom Hawkins, policy executive for the PR trade body, the PRCA, astutely observed:
“Politicians have the tough task of trying to perform the political equivalent of a magic trick. They must speak to two very different audiences at the same time, the conference hall full of ideological, partisan activists that help fund the party, and the watching middle ground of the electorate that is interested in politics but not in parties. To perform this trick, politicians resort to overarching rhetoric rather than anything particularly substantive.”
Representatives of the PR profession will certainly need something substantive to say but will often need to speak over the heads of those in the hall. That means steering clear of party politics, especially when the messaging will have to resonate across three or more conferences.
2. Keep focused
If you are not speaking above the heads of the conference crowd and, instead, are keen to talk to the politicians and special advisers on show, then make sure you understand your audience. In an interview with BBC Online during the 2013 conference season, Claire Burton, head of business development at Langley House Trust, which helps to resettle ex-offenders, said it was important to stick to specifics. “You have to know who you want to talk to. You have to know exactly what you want to say to them and at the end of the day it might not be of any interest to them at all.”
3. Think stunts and photo ops
One way to get heard above the noise is to do something that’s visually arresting or that plays off the natural narrative of the conference itself. Bookmaker Ladbrokes has become expert at this, using the inevitable rumours of a leadership challenge – or an actual leadership election – to create a faux-chalkboard with the latest odds. Snapped instinctively by newspaper and agency photographers, the image gets widespread coverage across print and online.
Think visual and be alert to events. Celebrities and high-profile people can be helpful – Bear Grylls secured much coverage for the Scouts Association via his speech, for example. And be creative – for instance, the DJ contest at the Lib Dem 2017 conference was popular.
Also, don’t be afraid to piggy back on events out of your control – there should surely have been a Fairtrade-related response after David Miliband was caught on camera with that banana. But we recommend you don’t go quite as far as Simon Brodkin did at last year’s Conservative conference.
4. Take advantage of location and scale
It’s true that the political classes are mostly within reach of SW1A on a daily basis. Nevertheless, the party conference catchment area is even smaller and everyone is obliged to stay there for two or three days, no excuses. In short, it’s a captive audience. Simon Butler, parliamentary liaison officer for The Sport and Recreation Alliance told the BBC:
“Some people say you can achieve just as much by setting up meetings with MPs or ministers at Westminster, for less expense … But I think there is something about being at conference that makes politicians more receptive to new ideas and debate.”
5. Get to the fringe
The party fringe, as the name infers, traditionally took place at the edges of the main conference. Typically, it was freer and less formal, an environment for proper debate. Much of that is still the case, although many fringe events now take place inside the “secure zone” in an effort to make it easier for senior politicians to attend. And the fringe has long been used as a comms vehicle – an opportunity to engage in debate and raise the profile of a particular cause. It remains popular for a whole range of causes, organisations and brands because of the two “As” – access and audience.
6. Avoid burnout
It might sound daft but self-care is also an important part of a successful party conference season – after all, you want to be on top form when all those opportunities with Ministers that you had been planning for actually come to fruition, right? Drink lots of water, avoid the fried buffet snacks and make sure you get *some* sleep (we are speaking from experience here!)
Where and when?
For the record, here are the details of this year’s main conferences:
Women’s Equality Party
7-9 September, Kettering
15-18 September, Brighton
23-26 September, Liverpool
30 September – 3 October, Birmingham
5-7 October, Bristol
7-9 October, Glasgow
To find out how Slack Communications can help you to do PR during party conference season or any other conference get in touch here. This is an updated version of a 2015 blog by Jon Bernstein for Slack Communications. Jon is a journalist, digital strategist and associate at Slack Communications. He tweets @jon_bernstein