Opinion: Are Nick Clegg’s emails to members too little, too late?

Nick Clegg has started sending weekly emails to my inbox.  As I research political communication, I was interested to see that Clegg and his team had taken a new approach to the mass membership email.

I recently carried out a large survey of Liberal Democrat members. Oddly, a large proportion of respondents commented that they weren’t too keen on the emails from Party HQ.  I was initially puzzled as much of the research in this area suggests that emails are an effective way of building up a relationship, and encouraging activists to do more.  The common view suggested that they were much more useful than Facebook, Twitter and other related technology.  Naturally when I found this contradictory evidence, I carried out interviews with party members and subsequently, a few trends emerged.

The first was that many members didn’t like Clegg’s formal tone.  Surprisingly, a large number referred to it as patronising.  Others felt that the emails were far too formal to be interesting.  One respondent said that she read far too much formal correspondence at work to want to read more in her free time.  I remember reading some research about Obama’s informal tone encouraging supporters to pay more attention to messages.  One commentator remarked that the First Lady’s email concerning Obama’s birthday led to a surge in supporter activity.   Of course we have a different grassroots culture in the UK, but this personal touch might work for Clegg.

It’s an encouraging sign that Clegg’s team recognises that their emails are part of a two way process. Recent messages have invited readers to reply with suggestions for future editions.  Of course, this is only useful if the team acts upon responses. As research from Mark Pack shows, a multi-way relationship can promote trust and loyalty, encouraging members to participate more, which can only benefit us in these tough times.

Similarly, a considerable number of those I interviewed felt that the leadership was, “pretending that small triumphs or even failures are indeed big successes.”  Clegg’s positive email following the failure of Lords reform was commonly cited.  Members felt that it suggested that he was out of touch.

The final trend relates to the battering that we are currently taking on the doorstep.  One Lib Dem council leader remarked that once he has spent 10 minutes chatting to a previous Lib Dem voter then they tend to promise to vote Lib Dem again, despite being overwhelmed by the negative media coverage.  Other activists weren’t quite so positive; I do suspect that this man’s positive attitude has impacted upon his electoral success.

Nonetheless, activists frequently said that they would appreciate it if the leadership acknowledged the tough times that we face whilst out campaigning, rather than glossing over it.  One respondent said he’d like to see a few, “Keep up the good work,” emails.  He felt that the manner in which the leadership chooses to focus on triumphs overlooks the struggle we face whilst conducting pavement politics.

Reading back through this post, it is rather critical.  I don’t like to criticise.  I feel that, as a party, we work hard, and, of course, nobody is perfect.  Nonetheless, I thought I’d share my findings, as it seems rather a shame to simply publish them in a journal that very few people read.  I’d be interested to find out what you think in the comments.

* Rebecca Tidy is a Liberal Democrat activist from Plymouth and works as a researcher at Plymouth University

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27 Comments

  • Tracy Connell 20th Nov '12 - 2:56pm

    Thanks Rebecca. That made a very interesting read.

    Party HQ are trying very hard to improve communication and are trying new things all the time, not just emails, but online Q&As with minister and social media interaction.

    However, a lot of what you said resonates with me. There was a lot of people kicking off about the email after the Lords Reform vote. We all knew that the moment it was announced that the timetable motion had been pulled (I was actually in the House of Commons Gallery when this happened) that Lords Reform was defeated and the forthcoming vote meant absolutely nothing. To get an email bigging the vote up as a huge victory was actually an insult to our intelligence and many of us replied to it saying exactly that!

    That was an extreme example, and we do get other emails from HQ and ministers. The beef we have with them mostly is that they come across as pure spin – something you’d release to the media perhaps. No nitty gritty details, just spin.

    These new emails from Nick, I find quite good in that they are topical – they talk about things announced or discussed in that week. They are somewhat informal, but maybe not as much as they could be. They are informative about the policies he announced that week with a good clear explanation of them and how they will work.

    The only downfall is that in the first couple of letters he asked for a reply if there was anything you wanted him to discuss. Despite having replied to his first letter, we are now on the third letter, and I have received no response whatsoever. This is the same thing that happened when our chief exec started sending emails and asking for replies. If you send an email back you just get ignored so there is no point in replying to them at all. Now it’s happening all over again with these letters.

    It would be good to have two way communication within the party. And that’s what a group I belong to are trying to promote: http://www.libdemvoice.org/grassroutes-to-government-a-new-lib-dem-activists-network-launches-today-28045.html It’s not nice being ignored, especially after the writer has asked for replies. This gets people annoyed as much as the spin.

    However, like you I don’t want to seem over critical. We get a lot more communication now than we used to – even if it is currently mainly one way. Emails from the Chief Exec, from various ministers, Online Q&As with ministers, tweets from Nick, and now Letter from the Leader plus a little social media interaction from some HQ staff occasionally.

  • Good research:

    IN summary – be more human, open up to suggestions from membership, act on them, understand their situation, praise our successes (as members) as well as their successes (as leaders) and then deliver some leadership with encouragement and positive words about the future.

    Would agree with all of that.

  • “This is the same thing that happened when our chief exec started sending emails and asking for replies. If you send an email back you just get ignored so there is no point in replying to them at all. Now it’s happening all over again with these letters.”

    100% YES. If you ask for communication you must COMMUNICATE

  • Richard Church 20th Nov '12 - 4:09pm

    Well they are certainly not too little. More than one email a week would not get read. Too late? Well, better late than never, and a more personal style that doesn’t read like a press release is welcome. Nick needs to demonstrate that he is engaging the party membership, one way of doing that would be just an occasional comment here or on the members forum.

  • Kirsten de Keyser 20th Nov '12 - 4:17pm

    Am I alone in feeling slightly uneasy about the fact that, were we in Germany the
    Letter from the Leader
    would be
    Ein Brief vom Führer

  • I don’t think it’s communication with the members that’s the problem. It’s that we are failing totally in the “air war” of national communication with the electorate.

    If we could direct a fraction of our on the ground campaigning on local issues to informing the public on national matters, I can’t help thinking we’d be in a much better place in the opinion polls.

  • Tony Dawson 20th Nov '12 - 6:10pm

    @RC:

    “If we could direct a fraction of our on the ground campaigning on local issues to informing the public on national matters, I can’t help thinking we’d be in a much better place in the opinion polls.”

    Why? ‘informing’ the public suggests they are ignorant and ‘we’ have something to tell them that they don’t know and would want to hear. If we were to show the public (or at least key demographics) that we were prepared to LISTEN to them then we might be much better placed in the opinion polls. If Party HQ were to consider the half a dozen places in the country who are doing not just ‘less badly’ but very well in local elections at the moment, then there might also be more to say to the party as a whole.

    Can someone tell me why our Party’s Chief Executive is sending out regular emails on a political themes? He’s a very nice man but he was elected by no one to take any kind of political role in the Party. He is paid to run the party machine, a job requiring a completely different skill-set. I doubt very much whether he actually authors much of what goes out in his name, though I’m sure he signs it off. But what is the point of it?

    The job of leading a political Party is not an insignificant one. Nor is the job of being a Cabinet Member in a Coalition Government. Somebody [b]with political authority in the party[/b] needs to be on the job of Leading the Party virtually full-time, responsible to the Leader. And that needs more than ‘Young Mr Grace’ letters from the bunker.

  • Richard Dawson 20th Nov '12 - 7:54pm

    It seems we are a long way behind e-marketing wise especially in the way we use Social Media .We can learn some big lessons from Obama but especially from the SNP

    http://www.totalpolitics.com/blog/254837/the-snpand39s-social-media-success.thtml

  • @ Tony Dawson

    “Why? ‘informing’ the public suggests they are ignorant and ‘we’ have something to tell them that they don’t know and would want to hear”

    Unfortunately there is a lot the public – or at least ex Lib Dem voters – don’t appear to know about what is being done in government by our ministers. Because we are constantly pilloried by the Tories and Labour and that is reported in the press. A classic of this one was Chukka Umunna’s recent inane slagging off of Vince Cable, reported verbatim by the Guardian as some kind of gospel truth. It is this kind of pernicious misinformation that we need to counteract on the doorstep with information, otherwise voters seem to take the hostile Tory and Labour view of our party as being the gospel truth.

    We have got a message to deliver nationally to the voters, but at the moment, it’s not being delivered.

  • RC :

    “Unfortunately there is a lot the public – or at least ex Lib Dem voters – don’t appear to know about what is being done in government by our ministers.

    We have got a message to deliver nationally to the voters, but at the moment, it’s not being delivered.”

    And why would more than four per cent of them want to listen to our preaching? If we do not genuinely listen, what strange logic would suggest that we will be listened to? You might as well scatter FOCUS leaflets off London Bridge.

  • Paul in Twickenham 20th Nov '12 - 10:55pm

    The first email appeared in my inbox. The later emails have all been delivered into my spam folder. I don’t know the mechanics of how yahoo! mail decides to dump things into spam, but that’s where they’ve been going.

    In terms of the content of the most recent email, I observed on a different thread that it felt rather like receiving a letter from the captain of the Titanic saying that we should ignore the fact that the ship was sinking, and listen to the orchestra’s marvellous rendition of Abide With Me.

    How about if Nick shared his long-term vision of the strategic direction of The Party with us? It would be very helpful to know if the intention is to turn us into the GB branch of the FDP as then I could just get on with tearing up my membership card without wondering if maybe I’ve misunderstood something.

  • “We have got a message to deliver nationally to the voters, but at the moment, it’s not being delivered.”

    I think your problem is that – as Roy Jenkins once said at a rather crucial moment – the voters can “tell a hawk from a handsaw”. Your problem isn’t that the voters don’t understand – it’s that they understand only too well.

  • Tracy Connell 21st Nov '12 - 7:54am

    @Tony “Why? ‘informing’ the public suggests they are ignorant and ‘we’ have something to tell them that they don’t know and would want to hear.”

    It does not suggest they are ignorant. It is just that our messages are not getting through to the electorate. Go knock on a few doors and see how many people can list 2 or 3 of our achievements in government. I think you will find it very difficult. We are overshadowed by the Tories and Labour and we seem to have no PR machine to push our voice forward. Why aren’t we on more TV programmes? The Agenda is great for a start and makes a good change from the usual BBC stuff. Nick has been on a couple of times, but we need to be on other ones that may reach more of the electorate. We need some kind of media campaign. Many of us try our best to write letters etc, but they have little impact sometimes.

  • Martin Pierce 21st Nov '12 - 8:02am

    The problem with the emails is that they are an irrelevance – some of it is quite good, other bits are tosh, generally they’re a bit on the long side but the problem we have is that ‘brand Lib Dem’ is tarnished and ‘brand Clegg’ is positively toxic. Rebecca’s article mentioned – in a positive spirit I think (!) – that “One Lib Dem council leader remarked that once he has spent 10 minutes chatting to a previous Lib Dem voter then they tend to promise to vote Lib Dem again”. 10 minutes?! It’s supposed to take 30 seconds and most of that should be spent walking to the front door and back down the path again afterwards. That, I would suggest, is a good measure of the depth of the abyss we are in.

  • Bill le Breton 21st Nov '12 - 10:14am

    Thanks for sharing your insights Rebecca.

    What puzzles me is that so few party missives illustrate any lessons we learn when campaigning.

    Despite the best endeavours of people like Stephen Tall and the many others who will have got in touch, the Leader’s letter is still closer to an Election Address from the 1950s than to a modern campaigning resource.

    I can’t believe that those producing them have had no experience of campaigning. If any really have had no experience, then, they ought to be sent ‘into the field’ as quickly as possible.

    The more likely explanation is that they have come to the conclusion that what they are doing is different from campaigning. It isn’t.

    And, as most Lib Dems are a population that selects itself by its yearning for change and its aptitude for campaigning, it shouldn’t be too hard to engage with them.

    What are we changing, who do we need to influence, how can I help?

    As Forster advised, “Only connect …”

  • The combined thoughts of LD posters on LDV is most encouraging. There is clearly a general wish to engage with the public the LDs serve. And that is the real point – service to the nation’s public – which needs an open dialogue which might sometimes become painful to hear. Trolls there will be in plenty, as I experience on Comment is Free in Guardian postings but many of us (somewhat occasional LDs) continue to be positive despite the abundant negativity. I also blog as an LGBT activist and have almost no negativity because being LGBT is acceptable to a large majority of the public. Blogging and public appearances etc all help promote the standards you and I cherish and any means should be valued and supported. So my conclusion is well done Nick, MPs, members, activists all – spend any time you can online or in your public interactions and grow back from 10% to 20% in every poll going.

  • Margaret Rutter 21st Nov '12 - 12:28pm

    I like Nicks letter. I find them informative and knowledge is key to all things.

  • Having been on many party email lists for some years, I have a rule of thumb: if an email is likely to make my blood pressure skyrocket it gets deleted without being read. Each name that an email might come from gets three chances; if after having read three emails from them, all the emails annoyed me in some way then all the others get deleted.

    There are currently four party bigwigs whose emails DON’T get automatically deleted, and Clegg is not one of them.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Nov '12 - 2:33pm

    I’ll listen to Nick Clegg when he listens to me.

  • Well at least they now sound like they were actually written by the man, unlike some earlier efforts.! But the CEO should not be writing to members, he has the job of running HQ and the party admin, and should stick to that. But now that at last we are starting to have regular communication, those of us who are getting the emails are feeling a bit more connected, though nothing has changed yet for the 50% of members who are not on-line. Communication with the public is dire, because we depend on the Masters of Wapping, perhaps we should start our own tabloid and TV channel

  • @Tracy Connell:

    Tracy, unfortunately some of the things you suggest you want ‘more’ of would probably turn people off the Liberal Democrats. Some of us mange to enjoy winning elections despite national events. We would rather that things were not done centrally to make it harder for us so to do.

  • Helen Dudden 25th Nov '12 - 1:46pm

    Emails are just that, anyone can send them, and often they do not come across as positive. Not only open to the members of a party, that is the suggestion, others voted that are not members. I make the point, that politics tends to get in the way sometimes.

  • Roger Mullenger 25th Nov '12 - 6:16pm

    Re: “The big improvement for Nick Clegg ‘s e-mails would be indications that he was reacting to our replies.” and “There are currently four party bigwigs whose emails DON’T get automatically deleted, and Clegg is not one of them.”. We seem to be doing the Mail’s, Telegraph’s etc job for them. Nick Clegg has more than a full time job in his role and spending time negotiating compromises. It would be good if the party machine could guarantee that replies are read and taken note of, but it would take an army to respond to every email, together with the associated expense.
    As was said recently by a minister, there are no papers which will give us favorable coverage – it’s down to us unfortunately.
    It would be good if the letters were a little more informal, and certainly false positive spin is a very bad idea.

  • Robert Mullenger

    Are you sure no paper supports the LD? I think you will find the Guardian supported them in 2010 and the editorial support for Clegg has stayed pretty strong. There are also a number of columnists who are sympathetic.

    In fact the vast majority of the press supports the Tories and this is not surprising if you look at the ownership.

    I think you, and your ministers, should stop moaning about it as nothing will be done and it looks like the party’s best pal Cameron is looking to ignore Leveson.

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