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Emotion has always played a central role in PR and advertising. However, its importance in shaping public policy is often overlooked.

In the 1990s, two pieces of legislation were enacted to address the emotionally-charged subjects of gun control and dog attacks. In 1991, the Dangerous Dogs Act sought to end a series of violent dog attacks, particularly on children, by limiting ownership of any ‘Specially Controlled Dogs’. Then, the issue of gun control was catapulted into the public policy agenda following the 1996 Dunblane Massacre, in which 16 children and their teacher were shot dead. By February 1997, the government had effectively banned civilian ownership of handguns. Much of the media coverage at the time described these two pieces of legislation as hasty political responses to the legitimate concerns of the public, expedited by emotional triggers.

A fortnight ago, the cases of Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley clearly tugged on the emotional heartstrings of policy-makers and politicians at the Home Office. A surprise change of direction saw Home Secretary Sajid Javid announce that doctors will be able to prescribe cannabis-derived medicines in cases of “exceptional clinical need”. The deprivation of two poorly children of the only medication which had previously alleviated their suffering captured the attention of the media and politicians. In response, and after much hand-wringing in the press, the government finally altered a stance which had been grounded for many years in a wariness towards being seen to be overly open towards drug law liberalisation.  The change in policy suggests that the government wants to be seen as at least open to accepting the benefits of an evidence-based approach to cannabis-based pharmaceuticals.

This isn’t the first time this year the Home Office has reacted to emotional sentiment from the public and members of the House. In April, the plight of the Windrush generation and their families sailed onto the political agenda after a series of injustices were brought to light against immigrants who had arrived as part of the post-war rebuilding of the UK. Many Windrush immigrants lacked the necessary paperwork to prove they had the right to legally live in the UK, and were threatened with deportation. Newspaper headlines declared the government’s actions a “betrayal”, and attention on the case swiftly gathered momentum. More than 130,000 people outraged by the government’s actions signed a petition demanding the government grant amnesty for the Windrush generation. The government’s initial actions, as well as their handling of the situation as it unfolded, led to the resignation of the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, and to force an apology from government for their handling of the situation. The momentum behind the perceived injustices built to a peak, galvanised by support from an empathetic public, and forced the government to change tack.

Whilst the facts of both these cases are not to be overlooked, the power of empathy as a means to build momentum and expedite policy change was clearly a crucial driving factor – just as it was after the Dunblane Massacre and in the events leading up to the Dangerous Dogs Act. The recent policy shifts, on cannabis medicines and on Windrush in particular, both demonstrate examples of where empathy-based politics wields the ability to produce swift and measured regulatory change.

Elections are, by nature, emotionally-charged, with politicians feeding people’s impassioned views on trigger topics like the NHS, immigration and the economy. The ability, therefore, to manipulate emotion during election is a powerful too, and arguably wields the power to deliver results which are less than measured.

Many have pointed to the politics of nostalgia as a factor behind the victory of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum. Others have pointed to the failure of the Remain campaign to connect with the electorate on an emotional level. In a similar vein, President Trump’s ability to secure the Republican presidential nomination and go on to win the US election in 2016 is often labelled as a victory of populism. Trump’s campaign stressed points to trigger emotions and, again, reach out to people through the politics of nostalgia – “Make America Great Again”.

Emotive narratives have always played an important role in driving forward campaigns. In January, Dame Tessa Jowell’s powerful speech to the House of Lords was a masterclass in emotional political oratory. She described both her own traumatic experience as a brain cancer patient, and shed light on the opportunities available to improve clinical outcomes for others battling the same condition, encouraging her fellow parliamentarians to campaign for better support, more research and better access to cancer clinical trials. James Brokenshire MP, who left his position as Northern Ireland Secretary because of lung cancer, said Jowell’s speech managed “to focus on the human condition – what gives it purpose – and the overriding power of human kindness, compassion and love”. Just a few months down the line, in May this year, the government announced they would double brain cancer research funding to £40 million a year. Here, a powerful and emotive narrative, successfully supported the delivery of an initiative which the cancer community had been campaigning on for years.

In an era which is clearly piqued by moments of empathy-charged politics, consultants who work in public affairs and communications should be reminded of the potential emotion has in driving campaigns forward, building momentum and galvanising support. Drew Westen’s book, The Political Brain, identified elections as being decided in “the marketplace of emotions…filled with values, images, analogies, moral sentiments, and moving oratory, in which logic plays only a supporting role”.

In our own work at WA, we have long recognised the strength of emotional story-telling. For example, our campaign, #SaveChildcareVouchers, drew attention to the personal experiences of families who would be hardest-hit by the government’s planned closure of the childcare vouchers scheme. By focusing on those key demographics, the campaign successfully managed to delay the closure of the scheme from April until October 2018.

It is clear we do not need to look far to see the power empathy and emotion can play in politics. It has long been recognised by PR professionals that emotionally-charged narratives can help companies build relationships with customers. Whilst Public Affairs professionals wield a wide armoury of techniques, sometimes the ability to make people laugh, cry and remember, is the most effective tool at their disposal.

Cameron Wall, Account Executive