Lessons for Rishi Sunak and Yorkshire Tea after stir on Twitter – David Behrens

There is a steaming cup of Yorkshire Tea on my desk right now. A little later, I might tear open a box of Pringles and enjoy a chunk of cheese from the Wensleydale creamery, between two slices of Warburtons’ best.

Richmond MP Rishi Sunak.

I would like to be able to report that one or more of these brands had slipped me a crafty back-hander in return for a plug. Sadly, I had to pay them – over the counter at Morrisons, in the usual way. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

The Chancellor and North Yorkshire MP, Rishi Sunak, learned this the other day when he tweeted a picture of himself making a cup of Yorkshire Tea in the Treasury kitchen. “Nothing like a good Yorkshire brew,” he wrote.

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Yorkshire Tea rolls off the production line

Mr Sunak was also not remunerated for his endorsement. As things turned out, Taylors of Harrogate, the maker of said tea, would probably have happily paid him not to bother – because no sooner had his tweet hit the fan than they were facing down calls for a boycott.

This raises a fundamental question: what’s wrong with people?

In a society in which so many of the mores of the last generation have become unconscionable, and rightly so; when racism, sexism and every other ism has been made intolerable, Twitter is a single receptacle for them all.

The marketing people at Taylors discovered this when their inboxes became engulfed by a sea of vitriol from people who believed they had collaborated with Mr Sunak. Most of their messages were barely literate, many were profane, all were facile.

“It’s been pretty shocking to see the determination some have had to drag us into a political mud fight,” the firm replied. “For anyone about to vent their rage online, even to a company – please remember there’s a human on the other end of it, and try to be kind.”

I sympathise with the sentiment but its author is shouting into the wind. Twitter is never going to be kind. It is the layer of sediment at the bottom of our tolerant society; the dregs in the teapot. Taylors must be wondering right now if it is wise to continue exposing its staff to a level of abuse that would have brought a claim for compensation had it been perpetrated in the office. It may yet.

Its use as a sales tool never made sense in the first place. As I’ve observed before, the first rule of marketing is to keep control of the message – and putting it on Twitter is as indiscriminate as spraying it in graffiti on the side of a boarded-up building. Carefully-crafted campaigns can be subverted in seconds by anyone, and many take pleasure in doing just that. Engaging with the public is one thing; declaring open season quite another.

The pub chain Wetherspoons saw this two years ago, and withdrew entirely from the social media arena. Its Brexiteering boss, Tim Martin, concluded that it was simply a waste of time – his staff’s and everyone else’s. Despite this, Wetherspoons remains as popular as Yorkshire Tea.

There is then the question of what’s in it for politicians like Mr Sunak. In extolling the virtues of a local product, he was doing no wrong. His Richmond constituency is in the very heart of Yorkshire; he ought to know an authentic brew when he tastes one.

But why did his advisers – the one who took the picture and another whose reflection is in the teapot – want him to do it? The message made no political point nor did it seem to be an attempt at humour. Rather, it spoke to the blind obsession among the political classes of building a “profile” at all costs, irrespective of the consequences. The advantages of doing this are unclear; the risks many and obvious.

But not obvious enough, apparently. No sooner had Yorkshire Tea recovered its equilibrium than Mr Sunak’s Cabinet colleague, Jacob Rees-Mogg, popped up on Twitter with a Walkers crisp in his hand and a tube of Pringles on his desk. “I can reassure the manufacturers of artisan crisps that they are in no danger,” he wrote. In no danger of what? Legislation to ban salty foods? At least Mr Rees-Mogg’s message was tongue-in-cheek; no-one who dresses as he does could really think that Walkers crisps are artisanal.

Mr Sunak emerged from the debacle with his dignity intact, but having gained nothing. The rest of us learned only that the Treasury buys its tea bags in bulk – there were 1,040 in the giant packet he had his hand in. That’s a heck of a lot of caffeine. Let’s hope it keeps him awake long enough for his Budget the week after next.