Steve Richards is a political columnist and broadcaster. His work has appeared in the New Statesman, The Guardian, Independent, and Spectator. He presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and hosts a one-man show, Rock ‘N’ Roll Politics.

He has spoken at our annual conference LEAD for a number of years, giving the audience the benefit of his own no-holds-barred take on the biggest issues surrounding advertising and politics. At this year’s event he will be talking around the issues being debated by our other fantastic guests on the topics of trust, trade and transformation.

In this interview he explains why the issue of trust is universal for advertisers, politicians and the media more widely, and why a course correction around messaging and framing is starting to take hold.


The industry is working hard to counter an endemic lack of trust. What similarities are there between advertising and politics in that regard?

Advertising Association LEAD 2018Two things have happened. One is the term ‘spin’ has wholly negative connotations. Spin conveys a sense of mendacity, mistrust, distortion, and that has led some politicians to be wary of reflecting on messaging, and that is the wrong conclusion to draw. It shouldn’t be seen as derogatory; I think the term ‘spin’ has harmed the open connection between the need to convey messages and politics.

Some [politicians] aren’t very good at it and aren’t interested in it, despite it being the essence of politics. Just as in advertising, if people don’t know about a brand, you can be the greatest brand in the world and die because people don’t know about it. I don’t think Theresa May has a sense of how you convey messages. She is clearly not that interested in it – she tries, but she’s not one of politics’ teachers.

There is a link there with advertising – advertising is a form of teaching, of making messages effective, of reaching people. Conveying messages is absolutely central.

The industry is working hard to counter an endemic lack of trust. What similarities are there between advertising and politics in that regard?

Two things have happened.

One is the term ‘spin’ has wholly negative connotations.

Spin conveys a sense of mendacity, mistrust, distortion, and that has led some politicians to be wary of reflecting on messaging, and that is the wrong conclusion to draw. It shouldn’t be seen as derogatory; I think the term ‘spin’ has harmed the open connection between the need to convey messages and politics.

Some [politicians] aren’t very good at it and aren’t interested in it, despite it being the essence of politics. Just as in advertising, if people don’t know about a brand, you can be the greatest brand in the world and die because people don’t know about it. I don’t think Theresa May has a sense of how you convey messages. She is clearly not that interested in it – she tries, but she’s not one of politics’ teachers.

There is a link there with advertising – advertising is a form of teaching, of making messages effective, of reaching people. Conveying messages is absolutely central.

Is there a recognition then that there needs to be a bit of a course correction? At making accurate and effective messaging a central pillar of politics?

Advertising Association LEAD 2018

If there is a course correction it has some way to go. The New Labour era actually was not just about so-called spin and messaging. It was about detailed policy making and then how you project it in a media which they thought would be hostile unless they got their messaging right.

There has been a course correction in that the current Labour party which is far, far removed from the New Labour era… after the Conservatives’ 2017 election which was a disaster in terms of conveying brand, in terms of conveying leader, party and programme, I suspect that at the next election there will be a focus on how you convey these things. You can’t be interested in how you win elections without being interested in how you express messages and how you frame those messages.

What has caused these historic lows in trust across the media and advertising? Is there something fundamental ongoing in how we interact with messages from brands or organisations?

This issue of trust is a massive challenge for the media, for politicians, and is often discussed at your January conference for advertisers too, because if there is a breakdown in trust it means advertising on behalf of a brand, an institution or a political party becomes much harder.

The advertising which is aimed at conveying a particular message will just be viewed cynically rather than as a attempt to frame an argument or pitch a particular message.

So I think it is a huge huge issue for society in general but particularly effects the messengers, the politicians, the media, and people in the advertising sector because it is sometimes the mediator of the message.

Given all that why is it important to have an event like LEAD that acts as the intersection between advertisers, MPs and other policy makers?

My impression having been to a few is that it is a brilliant coming together of the different sides of the world of messaging and framing. You always get top politicians who are exercised about conveying a range of messages from Brexit – you had Chuka Umunna – but as well as that you have politicians relevant to your sector… the culture secretary, the shadow culture secretary, so you have those two brilliant interconnections.

You have journalists, a whole range of people with common concerns and distinctive projects. It’s the only event I attend where there is a coming together of such a range of people and institutions with common concerns as well.


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