Friday, 16 January 2015

The journey of Tory leaflet - from concept to design and production.

Ask anyone who helps organise an election campaign what single issue causes them most stress, and I suspect they will all give the same answer - candidates who don't meet their deadlines!

Rather than just ranting and moaning (which I have done previously) I thought it was worth spending a few minutes explaining why deadlines are so important and the consequences when we fail to meet them. I hope by publishing this, the errant minority who are almost always late will understand not just what I get snippy and short-tempered, but the consequences for the printer, the wider campaign and their colleagues.

In most of West Kent we take a collegiate approach to campaigning. We don't just have local or parliamentary leaflets; almost everything is shared - with 50% MP/national copy and 50% local council copy. This approach is much more difficult to manage, but it shows us working as a team, it shares production costs between the local and parliamentary campaign budgets and makes literature more diverse and interesting to read. What's more, to make every leaflet relevant, we produce many ward-specific editions. Our latest newsletter which went to print today has 45,000 identical backs but the front page changes 22 times, so each ward had their own local news written by the ward councillor(s).

When we decide to publish a newsletter an awful lot of activity occurs behind the scenes to make it happen. The first stage is I speak to the printer and discuss timescales and capacity. Printing 45,000 leaflets with 22 changes to the front is a significant job, probably taking the best part of two days in production. The printer has to block two days of his factory time for the work (the leaflets have one side printed one day, the reverse the next day, then they are folded, packed and delivered on day 3). No printer with wages and establishment costs to pay can leave his presses idle, so he will have other jobs booked on the days either side of ours. We are fortunate in West Kent to  have a printer who is politically supportive, gives us a substantial discount and is more accommodating and flexible than he needs to be; but he still needs to pay his costs and make a living.

More often than not print buyers demand financial penalties for late delivery; so our printer may well lose significant sums of money if he is late delivering the job due to be printed the day after ours. If he is forced to delay due to us being late providing our artwork he will have two choices. Either (a) pass the late charges to us, as we were responsible for making him run behind schedule, or (b) put our print run back to his next available slot (which might be weeks away). Neither outcome is acceptable. 

There is another issue which many candidates often don't realise. It is standard practise to print leaflets "two-up" or "four-up" depending on size. For example, if four wards need the same number of leaflets (say 3,000) all four will be printed at the same time on the same printing plate, then guillotined and trimmed after production. This saves time and money for us and the printer. If just one of those four wards is late, the other three are also delayed as the print run cannot start until all four sets of artwork are ready to go. Late delivery of artwork not only causes delay and inconvenience to the office, potential delays and financial penalties for the printer but can also cause delays for your colleagues. 

As we approach an election I always publish (usually six months ahead) the literature plan. This informs everyone involved what will be produced, when we will need copy, in what format I would like the copy provided, the deadline for receipt of copy, the purpose of the leaflet, target audience and delivery completion deadline.  Here is an example:

This information is provided for each leaflet, mailshot and project up to polling day. Everyone involved knows what is happening and by when. The deadlines for this week's leaflet were known on 18 December. Plenty of time (even with Christmas) to write 5 short news stories. 

One of the things I hear often hear is "oh I know you always have a few spare days up your sleeve". And the answer to that is yes, we have - but every hour of those "spare" days is needed to turn your words and jpgs into professionally designed newsletters (Jon and I do all this in-house to save graphic design charges). 

Technically, if everyone followed the instructions we would receive 23 emails (one from each ward containing their words and jpgs and another from the MP). In reality, this never happens. Candidates send through their stories and photographs in dribs and drabs. Candidates fall out over each others words - often Jon and I are "piggies in the middle" as candidates send us "private and confidential" emails complaining bitterly about what their ward colleagues have said, done or written. Photographs are a particular bone of contention. Four years ago an incumbent councillor actually ended-up phoning the 10 Downing Street switchboard to complain that she didn't like her election photo and demanding the PM intervenes.  The photograph she wanted me to use showed her standing in front of a grandfather clock with the hands poking out the top of her head like the horns of the devil. I shall say no more.

What candidates often don't realise is just what happens from the moment their words and photographs arrive by email to when they receive their proof 48 hours later. Around 50%  of copy has to be converted into a print format which is compatible with Publisher. To protect our candidates from opposition attacks, all facts are checked and independently verified.  Photographs are scanned and studied, if there are group photos inadvertently showing children or car number plates we airbrush them out to ensure the photographs are legally compliant. "Exit" and "way out" signs are removed to save candidates being embarrassed or ridiculed.  We also remove trees and lampposts poking out of heads, surly youths making rude hand gestures and in one case we removed a large dog squatting "mid poo" just behind a candidate in a Tonbridge park  All this done without most candidates even noticing. 

Each version of the leaflet takes between one and two hours to produce. With 22 versions that is probably 30 hours work. Then we send them back for proofing. Many candidates think proofing is an opportunity to rewrite the whole thing, not just correct errors. For this leaflet Jon and I dealt with over 400 email exchanges (an average of twenty email exchanges per ward). If you think this is a lot, multiply it by three as this week we also produced similar newsletters for Chatham & Aylesford and Maidstone.

Finally, by 4pm today they had all gone to print. Across the three constituencies almost 50 different editions and 150,000 copies all designed, proofed and dispatched in five days.  The process is physically and emotionally exhausting.  Physically exhausting as Jon and I have done nothing else - 10 hours a day staring at our screens, airbrushing, rewriting, editing, adjusting and designing. Emotionally exhausting as every few hours we deal with an upset or angry candidate demanding something is changed. Sometimes we snap back. At the end of the day we are all human and tempers fray, especially when people are stressed or tired.  Tonight we went to the pub to celebrate a job well done, but we were so tired we sat in silence staring dead-eyed into our pints. 

Next week's job? 100,000 Sorry You Were Out cards !

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