Jonny Piper was Head of Video at CCHQ between 2014-18, and most recently has been advising Jeremy Hunt on his leadership campaign.
As we touch down at Heathrow, my iPhone pings into life with hundreds of missed WhatsApp messages, reminding me I’ve not had signal for the past hour. After a quick scroll through Twitter, I pass my phone to the man sat next to me. Jeremy Hunt looks up after reading the tweets that I’d pulled out – ‘I’ll reply to those’ – and proceeds to start a Twitter conversation with Tim Montgomerie about his great aunt’s lemon drizzle cake.
Even after six years in digital communications working as part of the Conservative Party’s digital team, this was new. I’ve worked closely with Prime Ministers and senior Cabinet Ministers, yet I’d never seen such a refreshingly hands-on approach to social media, or its use in a relatable and personal way.
In Theresa May’s Number Ten, an op-ed in a newspaper meant hours of preparation, yet a tweet would always be an afterthought. I always found this bizarre – when a single tweet or Facebook post of pure and unfiltered messaging has the potential to reach millions of voters. At the end of his premiership, David Cameron’s Facebook page had over a million followers, with Facebook’s algorithm showing his posts not only to those who ‘liked’ his page, but to their friends and family too – meaning that a single post might reach millions of the UK electorate. In sheer numbers of people reached, there is simply no comparison to print.
There was one moment when I thought things had changed. Soon after the then Prime Minister stepped off stage in 2017 after coughing through her conference speech, I was called into her suite. I took a photo of her red ministerial box and the copy of her speech that she had been reading from moments ago, surrounded by cough sweets and throat medicine. Tweeting simply ‘*coughs*’, at the time it became her most liked tweet ,with over 30k likes and retweets, and was reported on by Sky and the BBC.
Finally, I thought, her team are starting to get it: they’re seeing the potential of showing some character through social media. But I was wrong. It would be one of the only instances in which her team allowed a glimmer of humour or personality to come through on her social account.
In politics, personality matters. We may wish that it’s purely policy or competence that makes one electable for high office but, to succeed in politics, people need to like who you are.
In the recent Conservative leadership campaign, one candidate was a political superstar, known for his newspaper columns and appearances on Have I Got News For You, a man who could find himself stuck on a zipwire but whose personality allowed him to weather any embarrassment. The other, a personality largely unknown by the electorate.
Yet I’d argue that in this campaign, free for the first time to talk policy and politics after nine years of collective responsibility, it was Hunt whose personality shone through. And it did so because he embraced a medium that allowed him to talk in his own voice – social media.
There is no other platform that is so direct. Speak to a newspaper, and a journalist can editorialise your quote. Speak to a broadcast camera, and the interviewer will press you on everything except your pre-planned lines.
But social media lets you have direct and complete ownership over your messaging and tone. You are in control. You can be funny, sassy, or start a debate or discussion. It’s the easiest platform on which to tell the world who you are, and in your own voice. To use it well, however, you have cut through the noise and talk to your audience, not at them. Sadly, too many politicians miss the mark by just regurgitating a press release into 280 characters.
Donald Trump has shown us that a single tweet has the power to make headlines, start debate and – if we’re not careful – international incidents. During the campaign, Jeremy pointed out to me that, for the first time in history, the entire United States wakes up knowing exactly what has kept the President awake that night. The US is perhaps more connected to a President than ever before.
In the private sector, such entrepreneurs as Elon Musk really get social media. Despite not owning a Tesla, I follow him because he keeps me educated, entertained and engaged. With each tweet, I learn what he’s thinking and feeling, and get a glimpse into the world of a billionaire. And if you ask him a question, he (or one of his team) responds.
And he’s not the only entrepreneur that gets it. Throughout the campaign, Jeremy would regularly tweet himself – a rarity at the upper echelons of politics, interacting with colleagues, members, journalists and the wider public.
An example of how effective this social strategy was was #BoJoNoShow. After Boris Johnson declined Sky’s invitation for a debate, Jeremy filled the void by hosting his own Twitter Q&A. Trending across the UK with over 34k tweets, Jeremy conveyed his style and humour while answering questions on Brexit, the Union and the mis-pronunciation of his surname. Despite the financial limitations of a leadership campaign budget (£150,000), this interaction and engagement meant we were leveraging organic social in the best possible way.
The effectiveness of a digital campaign is boosted immensely when the leadership is willing to engage. I was part of the CCHQ team that pioneered the use of highly-targeted digital advertising in politics all the way back in 2015. Every political campaign has since used the same techniques, but often without any direct input from senior leadership. But imagine how much richer our digital campaigns would be if they were enhanced by a leader who fully understood the power of social media, and used it to speak to the electorate directly.