What can communicators learn from the recent election?

Written by Jim Walsh - February 2020

Photo credit: TheJournal.ie

We simply couldn’t let this edition pass without a mention of one of the biggest news stories of 2020 so far. General Election 2020 made ‘change’ the new buzzword and fractured the duopoly of the two main parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil who between them have led the 32 Governments in Ireland since 1919. Executive Chairman Jim Walsh gives his views on why Sinn Féin’s use of modern marketing and messaging techniques is worthy of note by professional communicators.  

Election 2020 here in Ireland has generated thousands of comments on social media,  hundreds of opinion and analysis pages in press and endless debates on broadcast media. And that is likely to continue for some time as the various parties and independents seek to find a way to form a new Government of change.


Change was the buzzword in an election that fractured the duopoly of the two main parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil who between them have led the 32 Governments in Ireland since 1919. This time around Sinn Féin spoilt the party by getting 24.5% of the popular vote against 22.18% for Fianna Fáil and 20.86% for Fine Gael. Unfortunately for Sinn Féin that didn’t translate into the majority of seats. They finished one seat behind Fianna Fáil, 37 to 38 with Fine Gael on 35. With 80 seats needed to form a Government the battle is on.


For professional communicators and marketers, the way Sinn Féin has adapted to use modern marketing and messaging techniques is worthy of note. It was way ahead of the other two main parties except in terms of product. It just did not have enough candidates to meet the market demand. In the Irish multi-seat constituency Proportional Representation (PR) system transfers are crucial. Poll toppers are expected by their parties to have more than enough votes to ensure that votes over the quota are transferred to another party candidate.


The Sinn Féin success is quite staggering when you consider that 88% of their candidates were elected against 45% for Fianna Fáil and 43% for Fine Gael. Had Sinn Féin run a second candidate in the 39 Constituencies there would be no negotiation about who should form a Government.


So what brought Sinn Féin to this point in its development? Clearly there was a mood for change among the Irish electorate, disillusionment with the Fine Gael Government supported by Flanna Fáil, which was not seen as solving the housing or health crises and other issues around childcare and insurance costs. Crucially there was a disconnect between top-line economic figures showing that the economy was the fastest growing in Europe and unemployment was at its lowest level since before the 2008/2009 crash. Most people were just not seeing the benefits in their daily lives.


To capitalise on this public anger Sinn Féin were much more focused on using data and simple direct messaging to capture the mood for change. Interestingly it wasn’t advertising spend that drove their success. On Facebook and Instagram Sinn Féin were outspent by a factor of 5 by Fine Gael and a factor of 4 by Fianna Fáil. What was different, according to some social media commentators, was the sophistication of the Sinn Féin message and its ability to study the trends and adjust its messaging accordingly. For example in the final week of canvassing it focused on showing young people how to complete the ballot papers, which in some constituencies had maybe 16 or even 24 candidates.


Its main slogan also caught the public mood  and was direct “Give workers and families a break.” Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil by contrast were more removed from everyday life. “A future to look forward to” said Fine Gael while Fianna Fáil said “An Ireland for All.” While many still have concerns about Sinn Féin’s history and alignment to the IRA, as well as the cost of its policies and impact on the economy, its communications and statistical approach to electioneering has to be acknowledged.


It has a new leader who is appealing to people and has been able to position herself as a clear choice from the established leaders of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, a number of extremely articulate spokespeople who are always ‘on message’ and talk the language of the people they seek to attract rather than top level economic statistics so frequently used by the other parties. Sinn Féin’s clear focus on a particular demographic becomes clear when you see that they attracted twice as many 18-35 year olds and an equal number of 35-64 year olds as either of the other parties. Only in the 65+ age group did they get less support than the other two parties, less than half. As a colleague said to me for many people Sinn Féin seemed to be listening, not talking to us.


Two particular lessons also come out of the Sinn Féin campaign. One is that to attract your audience all aspects of the organisation or company must be working in tandem. If you are going to promote a product or service make sure that you can meet the likely demand and deliver what you promise. Not having enough candidates certainly made it difficult to fulfill the Sinn Féin promise of change.


Also history is important. Whether you are in a crisis, or an election, your past and how you have behaved can have a strong influence on how people react to your handling of a crisis. Building relationships in good times is key. While Sinn Fein may have adapted the techniques of professional communicators and marketers they have mirrored the approach of modern PR – listen and use what you hear from your audience to tell stories with emotion.

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