Is the UK #Ready4Rishi or will it be #lizforleader?

Social media campaigns of PM hopefuls target 'selectorate' of Tory faithful



By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Sun 7 Aug 2022, 7:51 PM

Last updated: Mon 8 Aug 2022, 5:50 PM

The message reaches far and wide, but the target is a fraction of the British public. There is no general election happening, but it has all the trappings of one, at least in the news media and social media, which is where much of politics unfolds these days.

Gone are the days when direct personal contact or large public gatherings were the key platforms of political communication. Now the one who can pull the most likes, retweets and comments is considered the frontrunner: even negative publicity is good publicity, as the wise PR man used to say.

A little over 160,000 members of the Conservative party are eligible to vote in the ongoing election to the next party leader – who will be the next prime minister – but Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have unleashed ‘campaigns’ as though a general election is on, particularly on social media, which has emerged as a key battleground.

If you are on holiday, as many Britons are in this summer season, you run the risk of running into them holding forth in hustings at various places; if you don’t see them while on the road, you are most likely to encounter them on television and social media, making the kind of promises usually made during general elections.

Their social media ‘campaigns’ say a lot. First off the block on July 8, even before nominations were invited for the election after Boris Johnson’s resignation, was Sunak’s slick 2.52-minute video that narrated his back story of immigration, with the tagline #Ready4Rishi. The video, viewed over 9 million times, was released on Twitter, giving him a head-start in the bid to be the next prime minister.

Critics insist that Sunak had been preparing for the bid for long, registering domains at least a year ago. PR experts say it takes a while to produce a video with such production values, but Sunak claims it was done within 24 hours after Johnson announced his resignation.

Sunak’s slick social media presence during his time as chancellor has been widely noticed. It is credited to the social media guru Cass Horowitz, whose job title was ‘Special advisor to the Chancellor at HM Treasury’. Horowitz worked on ‘brand Rishi’, plugging him as ‘Dishy Rishi’ and a style guru, whether he wears a branded suit or a hoodie, selling him to a young, politically unengaged audience on Instagram.

Almost every act of Sunak as chancellor was reflected on social media, from the budget to his appearances in schools. One of his memes was ‘How it started…and how it is going’ in February 2021, showing him as a schoolboy outside his family door and as the chancellor outside Number 11, Downing Street, home of the chancellor, with the words: “Growing up I never thought I would be in this job (mainly because I wanted to be a Jedi). I'm honoured that on this day last year the PM asked me to serve as Chancellor. It's been incredibly tough but thank you to everyone who has supported me along the way”.

The launch video of Truss, in contrast, has been viewed less than a million times since it was released on Twitter. It plugs Truss as an international stateswoman dealing with Ukraine, Brexit

and other challenges. Unlike Sunak’s launch video, there is not much by way of her back story, but there is much talk about “delivery”. Less slick, but more organic, the message Truss conveys is considered more in tune with the ‘selectorate’ (the Tory membership who will vote in the election).

Plugging #lizforleader, she says in the campaign launch video: “I have a clear vision for our country and economy - and the experience and resolve to deliver it”. Keen to be seen as a leader cast in the Margaret Thatcher mould, Truss presents herself in a more statuesque manner, highlighting her time as the foreign secretary, holding aloft Britain’s flag in global forums and taking on Vladimir Putin by announcing sanctions and other measures. Images in Truss’ social media feeds show her in various situations, on an aircraft carrier, or in a hard hat, building a ship, or addressing world leaders.

The campaigns of both Truss and Sunak have also invited much derision, parody and worse on social media. Sunak’s desire to be seen as a regular guy, downplaying his wealthy background, has sparked some mirth, with many recalling his family wealth, his background in finance, investments, property, education at Winchester and Oxford, widely sharing a video clip of him as a teenager talking about how he has no working class friends.

Truss voting to remain in the European Union during the 2016 referendum has come back to haunt her, so is her past membership of the Liberal Democrats, before she joined the Conservative party. Many memes are doing the rounds, ridiculing both candidates, who PR experts believe are not as camera-friendly or digital native as David Cameron or Johnson.

The intensity of campaigning on social media by the two prime ministerial aspirants takes political communication in Britain to a new high, which is expected to be a vigorous battleground during the 2024 general election. Social media enables targeting specific voter segments, reflecting a logical continuation of the new ways (for Britain) to engage with niche voters, witnessed during the 2015 general election, and later. For the first time, large sections of the electorally influential Asian community were targeted with pamphlets and videos in Asian languages, particularly the Bollywood-style ‘Neela hai aasman’ video that canvassed support for Cameron. Such videos, or the then Labour leader Ed Miliband sporting a ‘tika’ and holding a ‘pooja thali’ during ‘arti’ in a London temple, may be called ‘minority appeasement’ in some countries, but the trend clearly points to an intense social media contest during the 2024 general election.

The writer is a senior journalist based in the UK


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