Starmer v Sunak: What the leaders’ debate taught us on how to inspire trust

Last night’s General Election leaders’ debate was all about trust. About which of the party leaders could convince the nation that they had a plan and vision to take the country forward.

Brands2Life Public Affairs helps clients to persuade their key audiences and stakeholders to believe in their visions for shaping the future of their sectors. And central to achieving that is ensuring that those organisations’ leaders can be trusted.

A leader, whether from a business, association, charity or political party can be the most effective advocate for articulating what makes their organisation special.

These leaders have a unique opportunity to shape an organisation’s reputation and shape or change opinion.

However, to achieve that, leaders need to be trained to communicate with their audiences, with narratives, messaging and facts at their fingertips that engage and resonate.

Four things to remember

For leaders of any organisation, there are four things to remember when it comes to communicating with an audience:

  1. Have simple, clear, memorable messaging
  2. Define your messaging strategy and stick to it
  3. Stay in control and know your audience
  4. Be true and authentic

With these four things in mind, and using Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer as our case studies, what can business leaders learn from last night’s debate about delivering persuasive communications in the best way possible?

1. Simple, clear, memorable messaging

Sunak’s attack line was as simple as it gets – Labour will raise your taxes by £2,000.

For those watching last night’s debate, it may well be the line that lives longest in the memory – in particular Sunak’s parting shot “If you think Labour are going to win, start saving.”

It presented a significant challenge for Starmer to respond to. His answer relied on a complex explanation of the roles of civil servants compared to politically appointed special advisers.

Try explaining that in a pithy line for TV.

Ideally Starmer would have had a simple, clear, memorable response ready to deploy. Instead Labour had to wait until this morning to publish a letter they had received from the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury explaining that civil servants are not responsible for the £2,000 calculation.

But for last night’s audience the moment has passed.

2. Define your messaging strategy and stick to it

Considering he is the incumbent it feels bizarre saying it, but Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is playing the role of ‘disrupter’ in this General Election. He and his team have recognised that, 20 points behind in the poll, he has to be on the offensive and take risks during his campaign.

Conversely, it has become received wisdom that Keir Starmer is treating that same poll lead as a ‘Ming Vase’ – running a risk averse, cautious campaign, primarily designed to avoid any major breakages.

And those respective overarching campaign objectives were clear in the communications delivered by both party leaders during the debate.

Sunak’s aim was to harass and challenge Starmer, hoping that the Labour leader would slip up. He came out fighting, with clear, single minded attack lines.

Starmer was far more deliberate and considered. His communications task was to avoid any bear traps and present himself as a trusted source of leadership.

In both cases, the candidates’ communications strategy for the debate supported their overarching campaign strategy and their respective ‘wins’ may explain why pollsters have largely called the debate a tie. They had defined their approach and were sticking to it.

3. Stay in control and know your audience

The moment that was perhaps most memorable from the debate – and is most likely to be clipped and go viral online – was the audience laughing in response to Rishi Sunak’s assertion that NHS waiting lists are falling.

For a moment he looked as if he had lost control.

Sunak’s mistake was to present as fact something that to most observers seems self-evidently not to be the case – that waiting lists in the NHS are falling. In doing so, he had lost sight of his audience, and in particular the audience member who had just explained to him that her relative had passed away after waiting too long for treatment.

His solution – to deploy an argument that failed to resonate with his audience – saw him lose control of the message. It served as a salient reminder to business leaders to flex their messaging and tone when appropriate or else risk losing hard-earned trust.

4. Be true and authentic

Authenticity is critical to delivering effective communications – for business leaders or politicians.

The format of last night’s debate did not lend itself to this point. With just 45 seconds to make points, the leaders had little chance to reveal their true self to the audience. For those leaders with more control over the speaker formats they select, it was a reminder of the importance of choosing the right forum for delivering your message.

Nevertheless, each rightly leaned heavily on their backgrounds and experiences – from their parents’ jobs to connections to the NHS, tapping into these aspects of their life made Sunak and Starmer more relatable).

Sticking to these principles as the campaign progresses

As the campaign progresses, winning the trust of voters will continue to be the central goal of the party leaders. It will be fascinating to see how well the two main parties can maintain their communications discipline, and stick to the principles outlined above, in order to achieve this.

Leaders from other walks of life will no doubt watch on with interest, seeing how deviation from communications strategies impacts trust and approval ratings in the UK’s biggest arena of public opinion for a generation.