It used to be the case that tabloid stings struck the fear of God into politicians and celebrities. Now social media is claiming the scalps of public figures on an almost weekly basis. Quite simply, life is on the record 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you want to enter public life brace yourself for one long reality TV show.
Privacy is dead and thanks to the advent of the camera phone everyone is now a journalist. There is no hiding place. If you’ve got a fondness for tweeting be aware it’s not a place for nuance. As a wise man once said, too many tweets make a t***. There are PR disasters lurking around every corner. The days of being able to control everything are gone.
While mastering the art of the soundbite is essential if you are in the public eye, soundbites alone are not enough to sustain even the most carefully choreographed and manufactured of images.
Those who are fleet of foot and have a sense of humour will survive in the frenzied media climate. Authenticity becomes even more critical …which probably explains the meteoric rise of Jacob Rees- Mogg and Ruth Davidson. The less-than-polished presentation of Jeremy Corbyn has electrified certain pockets of the country. People who try and present a very different public image to their private persona will ultimately get found out.
That being said, a bad picture still can haunt you more than going off message. Ed Miliband and the bacon sandwich are synonymous with his ill-fated leadership, William Hague and the infamous baseball cap photo is an everlasting reminder of his difficult tenure as leader of the Conservative party.
Life in the public eye is much less forgiving than it was twenty or even fifty years ago. Winston Churchill, with his acidic tongue and fondness for a drink, may have run into trouble in the modern era. Similarly, would the rock-and-roll antics of Oasis that propelled them to stardom withstand social media scrutiny?
So should we be more tolerant? Our public figures are far from perfect, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. Those in the public eye have a responsibility to watch what they say and behave appropriately, but we also have a responsibility to realise that if we want more characters in public life, we need to accept people, warts and all.
Giles Kenningham is a former Number 10 adviser and founder of PR consultancy Trafalgar Strategy www.trafalgar-strategy.co.uk