Do you want to fail miserably in an election? Hire an expensive foreign political consultant.

Between them Burson Marsteller and Dentsu apparently collected about $13 million from India’s Congress Party to improve the image of its leader, Rahul Gandhi in the run-up to the recent national elections, according to Indian press reports. After four months of the efforts of the international experts, Congress made the worst showing in its long history. So small is the remaining Congress contingent that they cannot even form the official opposition. 

Burson used to call itself the world’s largest PR agency but it now says that it is all about “being more” (better, I suppose, than its sister company which has optimistically renamed itself “Hill + Knowlton Strategies”). Burson usually spews out material about its work for clients — the agency’s habit of claiming the credit for the 1980s Tylenol crisis management strategy earned it a stern reprimand from Johnson & Johnson, whose respected senior executives had in fact been responsible for the Tylenol strategy.  It’s been six weeks since the Indian elections but, oddly, BM has yet to produce one of its interminable, leaden case studies. Maybe they share the view of a senior Congress politician who blamed the Mossad, the Israeli spy service,  for the defeat of the Congress. It beats the normal excuses about corrupt bloggers and biased journalists.

Burson did, though, announce “new leadership plans to accelerate growth” in India shortly after the election catastrophe. Its website says, “Genesis Burson-Marsteller, a leading public relations & public affairs consultancy that delivers integrated communications services to some of the best global and Indian companies, has announced ….” (the sentence continues for another three lines).  With writing like that, you can understand what happened to Congress. 

In fairness to BM, they are not alone. Ed Miliband, the charisma-free leader of the British Labour party has hired David Axelrod to remake his image. Axelrod was, of course, the political mastermind held responsible for many of President Obama’s best political innovations and for Obama’s winning campaign.

Axelrod comes cheaper than Burson Marsteller but seems to deliver more catastrophe for every buck. His first Tweet about his new client misspelled his name as “Milliband” — maybe just a subtle way of highlighting how much work remained to be done? Worse, Axelrod linked the Tweet to a spoof Twitter account rather than Miliband’s real Tweets.

Under Axelrod’s expert guidance, Miliband embarked on a series of local radio interviews before council elections in the UK. In one interview, Miliband  did not know the name of his own candidate to lead the council being discussed; he also didn’t know which party currently controlled the council and inadvertently congratulated the Conservatives for “doing a good job” (you can listen here but, a warning — it is painfully embarrassing). UK parliamentary elections are scheduled for May 2015 so Axelrod will have to speed up the rate of disasters if he wants to match Burson’s impressive Indian achievement