As we drove along Chester Road in Sunderland, I remember looking out of the window and being relieved to see midday shoppers and mothers pushing prams. It was two weeks before the general election in 2010 and this was the perfect audience for what was about to happen.
Things got better when I pulled into a nearby car park to find TV cameras, radio cars and the press all out in force. It was my job to make sure the media turned up, you see. So far, so good.
My passenger that day was William Hague, then the Shadow Foreign Secretary. He’d come to Sunderland to drum up support for the Conservatives’ local candidate and we were all about to do the classic political walkabout up Chester Road. I kept close to the media pack, close enough to flick the ‘off’ switch on the back of the cameras if we ran into any trouble.
On walkabouts, both the media and the political spin doctor are on the lookout for flying eggs for entirely different reasons!
No eggs flew that day but I was reminded about the Chester Road walkabout after seeing Ed Miliband on the campaign trail last week. Under pressure from his own party to raise his game and take the fight to the Conservatives, he decided to announce his return from holiday with a walkabout in London.
Things quickly took a turn for the worse when, within moments, he was egged. Now, this goes with the territory for any seasoned campaigner but it will never put them off and in some cases it can be advantageous. Who could forget John Prescott getting away with punching a voter who threw an egg at him? Hardly the behaviour of the Deputy Prime Minister, but he seemed to come out okay.
I see many similarities to the political walkabout in PR, especially when it comes to social media. Many businesses are fearful about putting their head above the parapet. They are worried about broadcasting opinions, engaging and opening up channels of communication. They don’t want to be like Ed Miliband and get egg on their face. But their real worry – especially for consumer businesses – should be the consequences of not engaging and the certainty that, one day, they will have to.
As Admiral’s chairman Stephen Waddington points out in his book Brand Anarchy, social media was, and remains, a game changer. It is no longer possible to control what is said about you (if it ever really was), but if you engage, you can at least hope to influence conversations and stand to gain much more.
The political elite know that an egg on the back of the head is the price they pay for engaging with the public face to face. It will never put them off and in any case, it only guarantees them a top spot on the evening news. They win more votes than they lose by doing it. Similarly, businesses up and down the country would be missing out on the chance to engage with and influence hundreds, no thousands, of customers if they let fear get in the way.
A good social media PR agency will help determine whether it is right for your business and how to navigate a course. Let me offer one piece of advice for free that I was given many years ago: when the eggs start flying, never try to catch them!