On Wednesday, 22/05, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Mr. Rishi Sunak stood outside No. 10 Downing Street and announced early general elections for the 04/07. However, his speech turned into a communication disaster due to his unprepared communications team. His announcement coincided with heavy rain and the image of a soaked Sunak went viral, criticised by political opponents as a sign of defeat, whilst the Labour Party’s election anthem from 1997 played nearby. This unfortunate incident, along with subsequent missteps, highlighted the crucial role strategic communications specialists and public affairs consultants, play in shaping leaders’ political trajectory.

The Conservative Party has been in power for 14 years, but recent polls indicate a significant lead for Labour under Sir Keir Starmer. Sunak attempted to leverage falling inflation and use early elections as a surprise tactic to regain control of the political agenda and shift the political landscape in his favour. This move surprised many, as elections were expected in the autumn and would be the first July elections in the U.K. since the end of World War II in 1945.

In the era of communication, communication strategy plays a dominant role. Communication experts devise strategies to maximise leaders’ potential, inspire, and convey their message. Sunak’s advisors were supposed to craft a dynamic communication image to inspire confidence in the British people. However, the image conveyed by his speech was catastrophic, and the symbolism of the wet Prime Minister dominated traditional and social media for days, albeit for the wrong reasons.

The primary issue was the announcement’s location. Traditionally, Prime Ministers make announcements at the entrance of No. 10 Downing Street. However, his advisors knew it would rain heavily, and demonstrators nearby would disrupt the speech. They had two options: set up a canopy or umbrella, which they didn’t, or hold the announcement indoors, as during the COVID-19 pandemic, which would have avoided negative implications.

The second issue was even more damaging symbolically. During Sunak’s 8-minute speech, from the third minute onwards, his voice was drowned out by the song “Things Can Only Get Better” played by protesters’ speakers. This song is considered the unofficial anthem of the Labour Party from Sir Tony Blair’s successful 1997 campaign. Hence, viewers couldn’t hear the Prime Minister clearly.

The lack of a special microphone to block external sounds constituted a major communication failure since the use of such devices is not innovative but common practice among journalists reporting outdoors. Media capitalised on the mistake, mockingly playing with the word “better” from the song, changing it to “wetter.” Therefore, the focus was on the wet Prime Minister rather than his political message.

Communication blunders continued in the following days. During a visit to Wales, on Thursday (23/05), Sunak asked brewery workers if they were looking forward to watching Euro 2024, causing embarrassment as Wales hadn’t qualified, overshadowing the visit.

Finally, on Saturday (25/05), Sunak announced that the Conservative Party manifesto would include the intention to reintroduce mandatory national (military) service if they win the elections. All individuals aged 18 would have the option to join the armed forces for a year or do volunteer work for one weekend a month. This controversial announcement now dominates political interest in a country without conscription since 1960, essentially since the end of World War II. The fact that Defence Minister Andrew Murrison had already opposed the proposal in writing (23/05) two days before its announcement further emphasises its unpopularity and the lack of coordination among Sunak’s communications and policy advisors.

In conclusion, such communication and strategic blunders could have been avoided if the Prime Minister had on his side MASO Strategics’ experienced and skilled strategic communications specialists and public affairs consultants who would have ensured that media focus remained on his message of economic recovery rather than issues like his wet suit, Euro 2024, and military service.

Michael Arapis – LLB, LLM, MA

Head of MASO Strategic in the U.K. – Political Analyst

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