Friday, July 11, 2008

PR and the Prime Minister

Gordon Brown has held one of the four great offices of state for 11 years now. Until recently, he had a good reputation. His decision to give the Bank of England independence was lauded. His decision to block Blair on the euro met with similar sighs of relief from the public. People generally were reassured when he stood up at the dispatch box saying "billions" in his gravelly voice.

Indeed, when the 2005 election campaign was going badly under Alan Milburn's management, Alastair Campbell, who was brought back for the campaign, insisted that Brown be given a big role, and then sent him round the country shoulder-to-shoulder with Blair on a "Vote Blair, Get Brown" ticket.

So why have things changed, and when did they change? They changed in 2008, upon the appointment of Steven Carter in January. Carter was brought in because Brown was getting overwhelmed by the number of people simply walking into his office and wanting to dump problems on him, or have a chat. Carter was meant to control the Prime Minister's time better and handle his PR more effectively.

Unfortunately, the Steven Carter era has not been a success. In December 2007, YouGov showed Labour 5 points behind the Conservatives (perfectly manageable in mid-term), but we suddenly plunged to 24 points behind (the latest poll shows a mild recovery to 13 points behind).

At root were what could only be termed as mishaps or gaffes. All of a sudden stuff started to get leaked to PR Week. So you started to get stories there that Brown was cold-calling people at 6 am. Brown has been calling people for 11 years, but the records showed that no-one was called early in the morning. We've had damaging tittle-tattle that the PM is supposedly obssessed with Tory spindoctor Andy Coulson, stories about who has had rows with whom, leaks about re-organisations. Lots of the stories have no basis.

The leaks can only be coming from Carter's team. If Labour people want to leak (and by and large MPs and their advisors and staff are extremely disciplined and rarely do this), it is to one of the mainstream newspapers and tabloids, not to PR Week.

Even worse is the lack of political nous of the new team. For example the advice to the Prime Minister to dash from one TV studio to another - Blair never did that, his appearances on TV were rationed and other ministers always appeared first. And then there are the oh-my-god-I-can't-believe-they-did-that moments. As Lance Price says in the Telegraph,

For sheer embarrassment, the picture of Gordon Brown sitting down to an eight-course dinner just hours after telling us all to waste less food surely takes the biscuit.

........ Somebody should have seen this particular PR disaster coming. It's the equivalent of allowing the Prime Minister to be photographed next to a door with a large sign marked "Exit". Even the most junior press officer should be able to spot a blunder as glaring as that one.

Colin Byrne, ex Labour party press officer, made the same point on his blog, except more pungently:

Quite what prompted the incompetents - as they clearly are these days for all their fat salaries and big job titles and egos - in the No10 bunker to have the PM telling us to eat up our crusts one day and be photographed waving a glass of wine around the G8 dinner table as he tucked into the conger eel the next is beyond this simple communications guy’s understanding

It's hard not to agree that Byrne's characterisation of Carter and his team as "incompetants with fat salaries and egos" is on the mark.

The fact is, Gordon Brown did much better in his pre-Carter days, when he was awkwardly shambling along with his in-house team and open-door policy. Because he was authentic then, till Carter got hold of him, and the public sensed it.

I think Brown should sack his new PR team, and ask old Labour hands to come in to help - Campbell, Byrne, Price and others. At least the Labour hands understand politics. And they are always loyal to the Labour party.

P.S. I understand that Steven Carter gets paid £180k, which is the same as the Prime Minister, and Carter's secretary is paid £70k, which is more than MP's. It adds insult to everything. The Prime Minister is responsible for the whole government, Carter merely has to deal with PR, and he can't even do that properly. What a waste. By contrast when Brown was in the Treasury, his advisors were low paid, and some like Sue Nye, worked unpaid out of loyalty, and they did a sterling job. Just goes to prove that bringing in highly paid outsiders doesn't guarantee success.


Anonymous said...

Whilst that all sounds reasonable, I'm in no position to really know the truth of it. However, whilst I'm not privy to the daily ins and outs, I, like others, can see the effect of the new team.

I was working at HQ when John Smith died and Tony Blair was crowned. The shake-up which followed was a seismic shift in external communications. In came re-branding and rebuttal, out went rather old thinking of how to run a Party. Some of what I consider to be our greatest talent at the time - most notably Matthew Taylor (who I still think to be one of the smartest people I've met) were raised up.

The same can not be said of the transition period from Blair to Brown, and the failure then is being reflected now. Within hours of the transition, the 'New Labour' logos had been replaced with simply 'Labour' logos on the HQ website page dealing with the issue (as had the colour red BTW), and I had thought that that this signalled a 'new broom approach'. It didn't.

What we have now is a mess. Whilst Cameron forges ahead with a clear electoral and communications strategy, which starts at the top but goes all the way to the bottom (to constituencies and candidates), team Brown seems to be stuck in dead tree-land still. Campaigning is top down and seems to bypass the Party machine altogether. New initiatives such as Ask the PM via YouTube is run from the No.10 website, not Labour's, for example.

Our positive messages are being wasted. The best analysis of what we've achieved with the NHS I read here on this very blog, not as a result of anything produced by No.10 or the Party. That's telling too. Instead of Alan Johnson doing a talking-head to YouTube to celebrate 60 years of the NHS, the communications team should have produced a viral video (and TV broadcast) along the lines of your NHS post, but of course there was no such thing.

Without wishing to go on, I think this current article speaks volumes. There is a strong feeling that we've lost our way in communications. (I can't be alone in wondering "who the hell is in charge here?" when I see the irrelevant mess which is the HQ website etc., can I?) and sorting that out with a bottom-up communications strategy would do more than simply avoiding gaffes like lecturing on food waste before a feast is served.

I can't speak for the individuals concerned, but I can say that, in the round, the whole machine is failing. (If No.10 would like some advice as to turn it around, they've got my email address and visited my website this week, but I won't be holding my breath!)

Anonymous said...

So nothing at all to do with Brown's integrity;Iraq troop withdrawl numbers,election not called off due to poor polls, 10p tax not affecting the poor and more recently more winners than losers with the vehicle tax increases?

Unknown said...

Am inclined to go with anonymous.

Snowflake you must lose your affection for GB and start to see things as they are. This is not about PR, but poor leadership.

Labour have wasted their opportunity for a poll bounce after Blair due to Brown's incompetence. The public will not give them another one.