Optics, politics and the media in the UK General Election campaign

The word optics used to refer solely to drinks measures in bars, but now optics are important for success in public life and particularly in politics.

Optics matter and, whatever his policy mistakes and triumphs, when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called an unexpected general election at the end of May and stood in the pouring rain to make the announcement, he started off with very poor optics indeed.

To make things even worse, opponents at the end of Downing Street blasted out Tony Blair’s 1997 Labour victory anthem ‘Things can only get better’ by D:Ream which could be heard while Rishi Sunak was making his important announcement.

In PR terms and in simple visual terms for the general public this was a really negative and downbeat start to Rishi Sunak’s campaign, and it led to plenty of humorous and insulting comments on social media.

Wet Wet Wet and negative optics

From the film Four Weddings and a Funeral (Quoting the Wet Wet Wet song and the famous question: ‘Is it raining? I hadn’t noticed’) to Only Fools and Horses, Withnail, and Alan Partridge, social media poked fun at the rain-soaked prime minister. The TUC joined in with: ‘Forced to work in the rain? Join a union.’

Traditional media had front page headlines such as, ‘Cringing in the rain – soggy Rishi kickstarts his farewell tour’ The Guardian, ‘Sunak admits election announcement ‘was a bit wet’ and he now has an umbrella’ The Independent, ‘Drowning Street’ CityAM and ‘Drown & out’ The Mirror. BBC News Website continued the ‘wet’ theme with ‘No pneumonia yet, jokes Sunak after soggy speech’.

daily mirror


And Rishi Sunak’s campaign optics didn’t get any better after his soaking wet Day One. Baroness Ruth Davidson, former Conservative leader in Scotland, was not impressed by the optics of Days Two and Three of the prime minister’s general election campaign which involved a visit to a brewery in Wales and the Titanic Museum in Northern Ireland. 

She posted: “The deluge launch drowned out by D:Ream. A brewery visit with a teetotal PM, so no chance of a piss-up. Now a site visit to something famous for sinking. Is there a double agent in CCHQ, and were they a headline writer in a previous life? Our candidates deserve better.”.

Liberal Democrats using stunts for cut-through

Meanwhile, you may have noticed that Ed Davey, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats was busy making a virtue of being wet. One commentator called it ‘embarrassing dad style’ as he fell off a paddleboard into Lake Windermere with his Deputy Daisy Goodwin looking worried on TV talking about the possible state of the water in the lake, and whether it was safe for him to swallow it, following the recent well-publicised sewage leak.

Wet Wet Wet? Yes. Ed Davey definitely was, but this was only the first in a series of visual stunts that got him and his party noticed by a lot of people.

In one week, he fell into Lake Windermere while paddleboarding, got wet (again) on a Slip’nSlide in Somerset, and cycled down a very steep hill in Wales.  He followed these stunts up with others including going on rides at Thorpe Park and also bungee jumping.

Journalists commented that these events were all definitely gimmicks, but they turned up and reported them and, in a social media visual age Ed Davey got people’s attention for a smaller political party and so was far more effective in getting noticed than if he just talked about Liberal Democrat policies.

Optics are very powerful, and a wet picture can say much more than a thousand dry words. Image does matter. Ed Davey looked to be in control of his damp image. Rishi Sunak did not.

Stunts are not new in British politics. Things went right for John Major and his soapbox. But they can go very wrong as Boris Johnson stranded on a zipwire and Ed Miliband with his much mocked ‘Edstone’ found out.

Rishi Sunak ploughed on with his campaign, and mistakes piled up including his much-criticised decision to leave the D Day commemorations early, the revelations about the Gambling Commission investigating police officers and Tory politicians who had bet on July 4th as the General Election date, and some candidates making dodgy statements.

Other parties including Labour, the Greens and Reform also had to disown some candidates and supporters, but it did seem as though more things were going wrong for the Conservatives.

This included some of their political interviews.

When clients come to me for media training, they often say that political interviews scare them because interviewers can be very hostile and challenging.  I then point out that this doesn’t apply to most promotional interviews about topics like business, social issues, campaigns, scientific research, arts, and events, which are the everyday bread and butter of radio and TV news programmes.

If you’re not a politician, the only reason you should be scared of an interviewer is if you haven’t prepared thoroughly for your interview.

You don’t need to be scared off by political interviews, but you will also do well not to copy the politicians’ blunders that have made the headlines during the UK general election campaign.

Don’t ignore questions

Firstly, don’t ignore questions in media interviews. It never works and this became spectacularly obvious when Conservative Party Chair Richard (Ric) Holden gave a textbook example of how NOT to do a political interview – or any type of media interview.

He was doing a pool interview i.e. an interview by one journalist, in this case from Sky News, which would then be shared with other news media. This is common practice during elections when there are so many political interviews to do each day.

The problem for Mr Holden was that he was at the centre of a row over his controversial last-minute selection for the ‘safe’ Tory seat in Basildon and Billericay, Essex, which had a Conservative majority of more than 20,000 in 2019.

Some local Tories said they were outraged that he was the only candidate on the selection list. Also, the seat is 300 miles away from his former constituency in the North East of England which he had previously said he was ‘loyal’ to.

Liveryman Roz Morris