A new Prime Minister and a unique digital challenge

A new Prime Minister and a unique digital challenge
epa05408697 British Home Secretary Theresa May leaves No10 Downing Street after attending a Cabinet Meeting in London, Britain, 05 July 2016. May is one of the candidates for Conservative party leadership to succeed David Cameron. Tory MPs have started voting on the party's leadership. EPA/WILL OLIVER

With Theresa May on her way to Downing Street, an incredible amount of activity will be going on to make sure the transition from David Cameron is as smooth as possible.

From ensuring the office is set up in the way she wants, through to providing desks and phones to her team of advisers in the cramped Number 10 workspace, it’s a tough job to get it all done in just a couple of days.

First things first

The Cameron/May handover presents a significant challenge for the digital communications team that I used to run in Downing Street. Here’s a lowdown of what will need to take place in the next couple of days:

  • Get the website sorted. Within the time it takes Cameron to resign at the Palace and May to meet the Queen, the website will need to be updated as fast as possible. The new(ish) GOV.UK website makes that quite a lot easier thanks to the single government domain. This means that in effect, there’s now just one main website for all departments. For the interest of web publishing geeks, this makes life quite a lot easier. The team can simply assign a new role for Theresa May’s existing page and link it from the Number 10 website. A new biography will need to be created too and potentially a new official photo as well.
  • David Cameron references will need to be removed. Again, this is fairly straightforward as it just needs to be disconnected from Number 10. His biography will probably go into a dormant state like the one for Nick Clegg did last year.
  • As David Cameron’s tenure heads into the history books – then the comprehensive Number 10 Past Prime Ministers section will need to be updated, far faster than he’ll get his official portrait hung on the famous Downing Street staircase.

A debate that took place ahead of the 2015 General Election was the extent to which ‘old’ policies, announcements and so on should be removed from the GOV.UK website. Previously there had been a culture of new governments removing content from the previous administration. Many of us felt that removing and archiving pages simply results in frustrated users who will face lots of broken links. So we came up with a banner that sits on old content:





This seems to be a sensible solution for those wanting to look at older content, but need to know the context of which government published it.

It will be interesting to see whether the transition between Cameron’s and May’s governments will be treated in the same way as the change that took place after the 2015 General Election.

Ministers and initial announcements

Once Theresa May is behind her desk in Number 10, one of her first jobs will be to announce her ministerial team. This is when the entire Downing Street operation needs to be at its most slick and organised.

Since 2012, the Number 10 Twitter account has been used to formally announce the names of ministerial appointments. It caused a bit of a stir when we started doing it.





Now that Twitter is part of the everyday communications operation, journalists and politicians will have their eyes very firmly on their feed. As soon as the PM appoints a minister then it’s tweeted within seconds (literally).

In 2015, we also started adding graphics, with a photographer on hand to take official snaps of brand new ministers. These were designed to be shareable, and were used on TV news channels and directly embedded in rolling news web pages:




Expect a statement and some early announcements, these are likely to be published rapidly on the website and regular social media channels. It will be an interesting indicator if there’s a use of any more innovative tools such as live streaming on Facebook Live or Periscope or perhaps even more immersive web experiences like Medium or Tumblr.

A genuinely digital PM?

Beyond the key areas of the website and the Number 10 Twitter channel, the digital comms operation is far more at the mercy of the appetite of Theresa May and her advisers.

The extent to which they go down the line of serious online engagement using innovative channels and techniques is less than certain.

Our new Prime Minister herself has very little evidence of a desire for digital from her six years as Home Secretary. The Home Office was renowned in Whitehall for its dislike of Twitter and an incredibly risk-averse culture when it came to social media. Some speculated that the experience of the ‘go home’ vans fiasco resulted in a feeling that social media had whipped up the storm. Or of course it could have just been a bad idea.

From my analysis, Theresa May sent her very first personal tweet on 30 June 2016.





Of course that was to coincide with the launch of her campaign to run for leader. This was several years after many of her senior Tory contemporaries such as William Hague (joined in 2010) and George Osborne (2013). As with other politicians (like Obama and Clinton) – her Twitter biography states that posts with her initials are sent by Theresa. I can count 7 tweets that she’s sent in her own name. Her leadership campaign’s digital presence wasn’t poor, with good use of video and graphics. So it’s possible she will have seen the campaigning benefits of social media and will carry on through her premiership.

She may continue with her @theresa_may account for political content in the way @David_Cameron has done – or go more for the established and official Number 10 governmental channels.

In her speech outside Parliament yesterday, Theresa May spoke of a “vision of a country that works not for the privileged few but that works for every one of us because we’re going to give people more control over their lives and that’s how, together, we will build a better Britain.”

As with any modern-day Downing Street operation, communications will inevitably be at the heart of the administration. With the unprecedented challenges she will face, setting her agenda using a skilful combination of political, personal and official channels will be vital in the new government’s mission. Used correctly, they will help to engage and explain with audiences throughout the UK, Europe and beyond.

If Britain is to find a new way in the world – the government will need to reach people wherever they may be. Our new PM has said that “the country must work for everyone.” That will mean audiences will need to be engaged with through more than just newspaper interviews and TV bulletins. Mrs May will need ways to form lasting and meaningful relationships with audiences and go to places where they are. As anyone who’s used Facebook over the past couple of months will have seen, many of us were happy to debate, argue and empathise about the EU referendum. The government should embrace this appetite and it will need to go a lot further than just tweeting statements from official accounts. Relationships will need to be developed to engage, listen and explain as we head into Brexit and beyond.

 Anthony Simon was head of digital communications at 10 Downing Street, working under David Cameron from 2011-15.

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