New slogans, same old spin: Sunak’s net zero PR problem

Criticising sloganeering, with a campaign slogan strewn across a podium and a screen on the wall.

Lamenting ‘government by headline’ while sharing several social media posts designed to drive (no pun) the net zero narrative.

Decrying how politics is done as political aides feed MPs attack lines in readiness for battle with opponents.

As a comms professional, these inconsistencies stuck after the substance of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s net zero speech sank in.

The way politics is done today – short term, obsessed with headlines, shrouded in spin – fails the country, he said. Who, honestly, would disagree with that?

Therein lies the problem, because it made what followed Mr Sunak’s opening remarks a travesty. In setting a dividing line for Labour ahead of the general election, he can’t credibly claim to be thinking long-term at all.

More than ever, it demonstrated that the old way of communicating is alive and kicking. Labour posted a mock-up of Sunak in Liz Truss’ pocket, but hasn’t charged into battle.  

We are already seeing that the facts around the impact of these policies get lost in the noise. Few people seem persuaded as advocates and opponents double down on their views.   

Far from bringing in a new approach to politics, I fear we can expect more of this in the coming months.

Long-term pain for short-term gain?

It’s been clear for a while that pressure is building on the government to act against its net zero measures, which Parliament overwhelmingly voted for.

A difficult by-election for Labour in Boris Johnson’s former seat put London’s roll-out of low emission zones into the headlines. This strongly hinted at a ‘wedge issue’ to take into electoral battle.

We’ve seen this on other ‘anti car’ measures designed to make communities healthier, greener and cleaner.

Huge financial pressure on households and our chronic lack of long-term infrastructure planning have combined to create challenges for such changes.

Although some of the changes Sunak outlines are understandable in the context of cost-of-living pressures, it doesn’t take a huge leap to see how we’ve got here with the government trailing in the polls.

That’s where any claim to long-term thinking looks unstable. By the time we get to ‘scrapping’ policies that don’t even exist, calls for a ‘new way’ of doing politics look ridiculous.

This is cynical stuff, designed to whip up an online storm. It debases the seriousness of the discussion we need to have. But we miss a trick in focusing on this and firing off posts (as I did) if we don’t consider how we can do more to support this change ourselves.

How to respond

Businesses looking to invest in green technology, sustainable places and training for high quality future jobs are right to wonder what the hell is going on.

Lots of people (including me) offer strong views online. But there is cause for optimism too.

We advise clients who are committed to net zero, and I’m heartened to hear their unwavering support for it. Those organisations who support a fairer green transition can lead the way here.

Those concerned about the climate can support campaigns, groups and organisations who want this change to happen.

And it’s on all of us to be clear on its benefits. Explain the why. Demystify the process. Show don’t tell. Be the change we want to see.

Why communities are key

Whatever the response to Mr Sunak’s speech, it’s clear to me that we won’t change anything in the long-term by settling for more of the same today.

We must do much more to connect all communities with the benefits that investment in infrastructure and net zero can bring. We must also listen to their concerns about changes that impact their lives and find solutions to them.  

And if we’re serious about the long-term, we should recognise how short-termism has helped bring us to this point.

It’s ridiculous to criticise low traffic neighbourhoods for being ‘anti car’ without seeing how our terrible public transport makes car use the only option for so many people. I say this as someone who’s committed to using public transport by default. It’s a difficult commitment to maintain.

Sunak’s net zero speech is riddled with such oversights and contradictions.

A new type of politics is impossible if we can’t – or won’t – be straight with people.

Meanwhile, many places, businesses, communities and families yearn for a better way to live, work and buy things. I’m fortunate to support organisations who are working towards that goal in different ways.   

Whatever the slogan, now isn’t the time to row back from that.

The image of Rishi Sunak delivering his net zero speech is from Number 10’s Flickr account.