James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Donald Trump is aggressively warring with the American media, while Theresa May is sidelining the media here. Trump behaves like the media must be destroyed; May behaves like it must be put in its place. Their approaches are different but both reject the rules the media demands they play by. How will they fare?
Unlike May, Trump communicates constantly. While he holds occasional broadcast interviews and press conferences, he prefers to communicate directly with the public through Twitter. This is to get his message out directly to the public and because he wishes to undermine trust in the mainstream media – who he blames for dishonesty and who some supporters blame for many of the cultural problems they believe America faces.
It seems unlikely in the extreme he’ll be successful. Trump’s operation looks to be an incompetent shambles and the hard-edged cultural policies he favours are surely destined to fail. The mainstream media will heap blame on him and his administration and it’s unlikely voters will collectively decide Trump’s opponents and the negative media were to blame. It would be stretching credibility to suggest Trump’s policies would garner substantial sympathy from the media if he were more approachable to them. But it’s reasonable to assume he might get a more positive hearing were he to play their game.
Theresa May sees the media differently. She doesn’t seek either to go over its head or to destroy it. She seeks to focus on the job of Government and wants journalists and commentators to simply report the news as it’s made. She’s made it extremely clear she won’t provide endless news stories, pictures or commentary to journalists.
With Labour in disarray and the Conservatives united, normal political rules don’t apply. She doesn’t need positive coverage to maintain competitive advantage over Labour. Where things will get complicated for May is when the Brexit process runs into difficulties, which it surely must – when companies actually leave Britain and the economy shows signs of wobbling. Even Brexit-supporting media outlets will report such stories prominently.
At that point, May will need the media to present her as a competent leader with a vision for Britain’s future and a plan to get us there. While her brand is built on competence, she is untested as a leader, having been leader of the Conservative Party for as long as she’s been Prime Minister. As we saw with Gordon Brown, a reputation for competence can soon become a reputation for flat footed plodding. She needs to fill in the gaps that exist in her image.
There’s a reason successful politicians appear to be media obsessed: successfully portraying a positive image is a crucial aspect of actually leading and governing. A reputation for honesty, competence and intelligence makes it more likely that announcements will be taken at face value and every mistake viewed within proper context. It doesn’t mean politicians will get away with everything all the time but it makes everything easier.
Trump will need to call off the war with the media at some point – at least for a time – and May will need to engage more actively than she’s previously done. It’s comforting for leaders to imagine that they can either have a direct line to voters or that they can let their actions speak for themselves but it’s a fallacy. You have to learn to love the media in the end.