‘Cost-of-Living’ PR war highlights once again how politicians cannot ignore the plight of ordinary voters

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It appears Chancellor Rishi Sunak has finally got his chequebook out after today announcing a package of measures worth billions of pounds to tackle the ‘cost-of-living’ crisis.

You could argue it’s all down to a 77-year-old pensioner called Elsie, from London. Her plight of how she uses her bus pass to travel around the city all day to avoid using energy at home brought into sharp focus how the ‘cost-of-living’ crisis is affecting many people across the country each day.

The subsequent headlines were bad enough for the Government – the fact the story emerged during the Prime Minister’s first interview with Good Morning Britain (GMB) for five years just added to the media furore. And the cherry on the top was Boris Johnson’s response. Rather than offer a practical solution to Elsie’s predicament, the PM chose instead to highlight that she was only able to travel free all day because he had introduced a special bus pass scheme for older people like her.

Since that uncomfortable interview with presenter Susanna Reid at the beginning of the month, the media narrative on reporting about the cost-of-living has substantially shifted and gathered pace. Up until that point, the coverage has tended to focus on the broader picture of millions of people having to make the, almost impossible, decision of whether to put food on the table or heat their home versus the Government’s apparent inaction.

The uncomfortable truth of rising costs

As you would expect, the media are busy drilling down to tell stories of the ‘real’ people being affected by the biggest drop in living standards since the 1950s – a perfect storm due to significant increase in household bills, transport costs and food prices, resulting in the highest inflation for 40 years.

Across the country, food banks have reported disturbing stories of hardship, from a child fainting with hunger in the queue to parents skipping meals to save money for their children. The Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) has said the situation ‘is becoming more alarming by the day’ and members are ‘running out of options’. The West Yorkshire Police Federation has even said that some of their new officers, on a starting salary of £21,600, are being forced to regularly use food banks.

These are just a snapshot of the tough choices people are having to make day in day out just to survive. Not surprisingly, many newspapers have launched campaigns on the back of the cost-of-living crisis – people-led stories that their readers can relate to, coupled with money-saving hints and tips, giveaways and how to make every penny count, while piling on the pressure of local politicians to act.

No amount of spin can hide the reality

When the Prime Minister issued his response about Elsie during his GMB interview his advisers and the Number 10 media team no doubt uttered a few choice expletives. This has been compounded by Conservative MPs offering advice to people struggling, such as telling them to ‘get better paid jobs’ and ‘cook from scratch’. The perception is of a Government ‘out-of-touch’ with ordinary people and lacking in ideas.

This was not just about the words and tone of the PM’s response – it’s the lack of a cohesive plan to help people get out of this mess. The Government, in particular the Chancellor, earned praise for his strategic approach in helping millions of people get through the Covid pandemic. Those very people, and millions more, may be left asking why the PM and his Cabinet have dithered for so long in coming up with a similar strategic approach to tackling the cost-of-living crisis.

Political vacuum

Therein lies the problem with the PM’s fast-and-lose media approach. While the tension between Johnson and Rishi Sunak, on the best approach to the cost-of-living crisis, is being played out in the media the political vacuum has allowed others to seize the PR initiative.

While the Chancellor will earn some credit for announcing a windfall tax, let’s not forget it was the LibDems and Labour who called for it. You can’t help getting away from the narrative that he has been bounced into going ahead with the new tax, as polling showed a majority of public support for the levy.

The retail sector is never slow to spot an opportunity and how to quickly seize the PR initiative. Last week, the discount supermarket chain, Iceland, announced a new discount scheme for the over-60s and this week Superdrug said it had teamed up with Social Media influencer and poverty campaigner Jack Monroe to freeze the prices of more than 100 essential hygiene items.

The devil is in the detail

This is just the start. In the weeks ahead, expect to see a rush of headline-grabbing solutions, particularly from retail firms shouting about what they are doing to help their customers through this crisis. While the recent council elections were not as bad as Conservative strategists feared, they should serve as a timely warning for the Government. While the term ‘cut through’ is perhaps over-used in political circles, there is no doubt the constant stream of media stories of people struggling to simply get by is now impacting voter attitudes on the doorsteps. And the stories are only going to get more harrowing, with warnings from Ofgem this week that energy bills are expected to go up by £800 in October.

Today’s announcement must be welcomed, but as ever the devil is in the detail. A few days of good headlines are no use in the long-term PR war if the Chancellor’s financial package begins to quickly unravel. Within half an hour of Sunak standing up to make his announcement in the Commons, the Institute of Fiscal Studies was already picking the package apart, questioning his claim that he was cutting taxes and calling for clarity on how the 25% profits levy will change with profits and the oil price.

For the millions struggling, they want help now. If that help does not land in the months ahead, notably before the hike in energy bills in October, will it be enough for the Government to get the “turbo charge” the Prime Minister desperately needs in the wake of ‘partygate’? Today’s announcement gives the Government some breathing space – they would be wise to use it to plot a coherent and robust PR strategy up until the next General Election.

At Cavendish Advocacy, we have an experienced specialised team of PR and Media Relations specialists based across the UK, adept at generating positive coverage and taking control of complex and challenging media crisis situations.

To discuss how we can support your business or organisation, please get in touch with Michael Tait


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