How the Chancellor became Whitehall's slickest social media operator

With the help of social media strategist Cass Horowitz, Rishi Sunak has cultivated a huge online following

Few MPs have been able to compete with Boris Johnson in the game of personal branding. That is, of course, until the arrival of "Brand Rishi".

As front-man of the furlough scheme and other coronavirus rescue-packages, the Chancellor is outstripping the Prime Minister's popularity in opinion polls. 

But Rishi Sunak's launch to fame has not been an entirely unintended consequence of his coronavirus policies. He has also created an unparalleled social media brand that blurs the line between minister and influencer.

The 40-year-old's social media feeds now churns out catchy tag lines, viral videos and slick graphics overlaid with his signature. He's been branded a "style icon", "the future prime minister" and fawned over as "dishy Rishi." A recent Instagram image of him working from home in loungewear has had more than 17,000 likes. 

In the cabinet, Rishi Sunak's follower-count across all platforms now trails only Boris Johnson's, putting fellow ministers such as Ben Wallace, who claims only 117 loyal fans on Instagram, to shame.  Sunak has more than 138,000 followers on Instagram, 431,000 on Twitter, 91,000 on Facebook and his YouTube channel has more than 303,000 views.

"He is really becoming one of the first British politicians to fully embrace social media," says Tom Dixon, managing director of Westminster Digital, a social media marketing firm that worked with Boris Johnson in the 2019 election

"Brand Rishi is playful, fun, he's announcing serious policies with really engaging graphics. And he seems very keen on trying to reach an audience of the politically disengaged."

For Dixon, one of the most significant events from the past week was Sunak's interview with Lad Bible, a social media publisher with 37 million followers on Facebook and known for its viral short videos. 

"How often do you see an MP or or minister or Chancellor going and talking to LadBible for five minutes?" says Dixon. 

The architect behind Brand Rishi is social media strategist Cass Horowitz, a former TV producer and son of Anthony Horowitz, author of the spy-teen Alex Rider books.

After studying at Bristol and then City University, Horowitz worked with Conservative HQ under Theresa May before setting up his own consultancy, The Clerkenwell Brothers, with his own brother Nicholas Horowitz. 

While at Peston, Robert Peston's ITV interview programme, Horowitz worked alongside Allegra Stratton who was Sunak's director of communications before she moved to work as Boris Johnson's press secretary in October. 

Since his appointment as special adviser to the Chancellor in February, Horowitz junior has been busy crafting personalised Treasury logos for Twitter, glossy infographics for Instagram and authentic videos of Sunak for YouTube.

But the 29-year-old's tactics, however impressive, have divided opinion. Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, says "Brand Rishi" is " too slick and shiny". "There's an extent to which you might say [it's like a] record or an advert that is over produced and the production values are so high as to interfere with the messaging," he says. 

Rishi Sunak's appearance on Andrew Marr's politics show on Sunday, launched a barrage of abuse on social media from those who felt they had fallen through the gaps of the furlough scheme. 

For Aron Padley, founder of a group called Excluded UK, which represents people who have been missed out of the furlough scheme such as the self-employed or limited company directors, Rishi's persona on social media only makes the Chancellor personally responsible for gaps in the support system that has driven people to despair. 

"This is on him. If we're talking about Brand Rishi, he has to put his hands up and say he made some mistakes."

Disquiet is also being vocalised among Conservative colleagues. Backbenchers have complained, for instance, about Sunak's use of his signature on social media posts showing party political messages.

Johnny Mercer is believed to have said in a WhatsApp group over the summer that the Eat Out to Help Out branding was excessive. "Is it possible to have these graphics with a Conservative Party logo on, instead of Rishi's signature?" he wrote.

Sunak has defended his use of social media, saying he wants to get the Government’s message across to as many people as possible and that if it means “they poke fun at me in the process” then “so be it”

"As Chancellor it's important I use every platform I can to explain exactly what we're doing and why in order to help the economy bounce back for the next generation," Sunak said in a video trying very hard to be candid, which was uploaded to his YouTube channel from last month. 

Giles Kenningham, former head of political press under David Cameron, believes complaints are a natural part of doing something different: "It's always one of the challenges that government is not always just about the Prime Minister the whole time, it's important that government is built around different faces, different people." 

"I don't think [Brand Rishi] is inconsistent with the Conservative Party's message overall," says Professor Bale. "But I think there is some justified concern that it leads him to stand out from other members of the government and in particular, perhaps the prime minister". 

For Professor Bale, the difference between Sunak and Johnson's brands is the Chancellor is already immersed in the digital environment whereas Boris Johnson's personal brand has had to learn to adapt. 

While he believes Sunak could have to navigate jealousy and resentment as a result of his social media success, it could also spark a wave of colleagues attaching themselves to his coattails. 

"So building yourself a presence like this could also help you know consolidate a whole bunch of Rishi-ites," he says.