By Martin Salter, former Labour MP for Reading West
Successful election campaigns require some pretty basic components. These include a credible case, a competent candidate(s), strong messages, a forward offer and a clear narrative about the issues and the combatants.
Attractive leaflets and eye catching posters can't win the day on their own - after all no one has yet mastered the art of polishing a turd - but there's no doubt that an effective visual publicity operation can make a difference to your campaign. It also is a wonderful way of demoralising your opponents and creating that all important sense of momentum.
Back in the dim and distant past I worked with John Howarth as he set up Public Impact to help take political messaging and visual publicity to new levels not seen before in the Labour Party. The forthcoming General Election is going to be one of the toughest and most unpredictable that we have ever fought. The stakes are high and we can take nothing for granted, nor can we afford not to deploy the full armoury of effective campaign techniques.
Here are my top ten tips for delivering a visual publicity campaign that can make a real difference:
Don’t leave it to your branches – set up a small team to cover your constituency/district. Identify your key sites in advance of the short campaign where A2 Correx boards will be seen.
Don’t waste time on back roads – maximise the impact of garden boards where there is traffic/footfall.
In the very best sites use Giant Correx (4’ x 4’) for the biggest impact. Remember your campaign HQ is, or should be, an important visual site that can have its impact increased and changed during the campaign with large format display graphics.
Phone round the members in the best sites to get their agreement well in advance – and tell them that your team will come round to put up the stake (just be sure to brief your enthusiastic team not to remove anyone’s prize hydrangea or a small tree because it’s in the sight line of your garden board - yes we've done both but trust me it's not worth the aggro!).
Send posters to your members and key known supporters with a covering letter – and sign the letter personally as the candidate. Take the trouble to put double sided tape on the poster so they can put them straight up. But quite a few won’t do it right away, so follow up by calling round to help them!
Where your candidate is well known then there is no substitute for photo posters (or Photo Correx) that build their recognition even further. They can make you campaign look more professional – remember the electorate votes for competence as well as values.
Where you don’t have records it is worth putting a Window Bill on your Freepost leaflet – remember to note where they go up. Have a thank you letter from the candidate ready to go to anybody who displays a window bill – sign it personally - and include a couple of spares for their friends and neighbours.
During the campaign you want to ramp the impact of your visual publicity. Call on people with a window bill and persuade them to take a garden board, replace a small poster with a bigger poster.
Don’t just rely on what you have printed. Make ‘home made’ posters – use old sheets, paper and kid’s paint, whatever, I’ve even seen Lego used! It creates a sense of popular backing for your campaign. Make an effort to get sites close to polling stations for this kind of publicity.
If you are direct mailing your supporters close to polling day including a window bill can pay dividends – sometimes people are willing to display a poster for a few days, but not a few weeks and it helps ramp the effect of the visual campaign, and again, follow it up.
Remember that people who display posters are great targets to become helpers, leaflet deliverers or even members – so remember to send them a personal thank you letter after polling day – they didn’t have to help you and you would like them to again.
If anyone doubts whether this stuff works let me conclude with a true tale from my first election in 1984 to Reading Borough Council. Such was the overpowering impact of our posters and massive Vote Labour bedsheets hanging from houses along the route to the polling station that my, about to be defeated, Conservative opponent lodged a formal complaint with the Returning Officer that Tory supporters felt too intimidated to turn out to vote. Job done!
Good Luck in May