Dealing out the right cards - Minister for Employment with responsibility for the New Deal, Andrew Smith talks to Stephanie France about the possible PR pitfalls involved in a compulsory scheme to take young people off the dole and into work

Television advertising was the first contact most people had with the Government’s New Deal and it remains the principal form of communication.

Television advertising was the first contact most people had with

the Government’s New Deal and it remains the principal form of

communication.



The advertising campaign started last February and moved into its next

phase in September. It uses real New Dealers and employers who talk

’straight to camera’ about their experiences of the scheme - encouraging

others to follow suit. This ’honesty drive’, so typical of New Labour,

is the key to the whole marketing strategy of the New Deal and will

either strike a chord with viewers or set their teeth on edge.



While the communications strategy for New Deal is being spearheaded by

advertising, it is underpinned by a national PR programme. On the user

side, the target is young people, and on the provider side,

employers.



Secondary ’provider’ targets, from whom support is crucial, include

voluntary groups, environmental groups, colleges and training providers.

Older unemployed people, the disabled, past offenders and lone parents

are being specifically targeted in other campaigns.



From his office in Westminster, employment minister Andrew Smith

stresses that ’credibility’ is driving the communications process.



’We had to demonstrate the New Deal was different from previous schemes

and the heart of that difference was both quality and a real response to

needs of individual. This is borne out by the care that has gone into

the programme - and we needed to communicate this,’ he says.



The outline of the New Deal was first floated while Labour was in

Opposition in the Autumn 1995. According to Smith, a decision was made

then to market the scheme on the ’basis of delivery and not simply on

the basis of promise’.



The pounds 3.5 billion New Deal programme is being funded from a

’windfall tax’, which was levied against utilities when Labour took

office in May 1997. Somewhat refreshingly, Smith has refused to make

bullish claims about the future success of the scheme.



’Our approach is absolutely in line with building credibility and the

delivery of performance. You won’t see any quotes from me saying that

New Deal is a stunning success, but you will see me quoted as saying it

has made an encouraging start and then I’ll give the evidence to back it

up,’ he says.



But no matter how credible the Government wishes to appear, just how

easy is it to coax 1.82 million (International Labour Organisation

figures) unemployed people into work and to twist employers’ arms into

providing them with training and perhaps even a job at the end of the

day? On past evidence, it is a difficult task. The bullying tactics

deployed by the previous Government succeeded only in alienating those

it was meant to target. Labour’s approach, characterised by soft words

such as ’partnership’, ’integrity’, and ’quality’, implies there is a

carrot to go with the stick - the stick being of course that the

programme is compulsory.



In reply, Smith says the New Deal will succeed because, unlike its

predecessors, it is based on a partnership between the unemployed,

employers and other interested parties. This ’pact’, Smith hopes, will

help convince young, unemployed people that the programme is credible,

offering them a real future.



However, advertising aside, it is the employers rather than the young

people who are being most assiduously targeted in PR terms. Smith admits

that young unemployed people are a captive audience, since they have to

sign on every week, giving at least one guaranteed point of contact.

That said, Smith has not underestimated the influence of the youth

media, such as the music magazines, on young people (see panel).



The New Deal was launched in ten ’pathfinder’, or pilot, areas in

January 1998, before it was rolled out nationally in April. The PR

campaign began around the same time. Smith himself is responsible for

some of the promotional work and in doing so he jokes that for a while

he became the ’minister for business breakfasts!’



Smith, 47, was appointed Minister for Employment in May 1997 and is MP

for Oxford East. His previous positions have included Shadow Secretary

of State for Transport, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and

Opposition spokesman for Education, the Shadow Treasury and the Economy.

In his current role, Smith works closely with David Blunkett, Secretary

of State for Education and Employment. Smith is responsible for

employment matters, with of course particular responsibility for the New

Deal, including day-to-day political responsibility. He is also

responsible for labour market statistics and equal opportunity issues

within the department.



He says: ’David and I discuss every key strategic decision. We are both

members of a cabinet committee which has responsibility for overseeing

the implementation of the New Deal.’ Smith also works closely with the

Department for Social Security and the Treasury.



The Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) works with external

PR agencies to promote the New Deal, including The Red Consultancy,

Media Moguls and ASAP. The latter two are communicating the key messages

to ethnic minorities, while the Red Consultancy is working on a

programme to encourage employers already signed up to the New Deal to

publicise their involvement. The DfEE is also involved in managing a

national organisations unit which has been establishing contact with the

top 500 UK companies, endeavouring to persuade them to come on

board.



There are 140 New Deal units of delivery around the country, based on

employment service districts. Each unit of delivery is comprised of

personal advisers and managers and a New Deal business manager, who has

the specific responsibility to market the New Deal to local businesses.

One of the ways this can be achieved is by hosting events, such as

business breakfasts with local employers and information events. The

work of the business managers is co-ordinated by the DfEE, which ensures

the key messages of the programme are being communicated.



At regional level, additional support is given by the DfEE. Business

coalitions have been established in the UK’s ten largest conurbations -

home to the largest concentrations of unemployed people. These

coalitions are made up of key employers who advise on the marketing and

delivery of the New Deal in their particular area.



Although it is too early to tell whether the New Deal will succeed in

its aims, no one can deny that unemployment has become a key indicator

of the success or failure of a government’s economic policy. Does this

knowledge give Smith a few sleepless nights? Ever a politician, Smith

prefers to see this as a challenge.



’It’s one of the key things we have to get right and obviously our

pledge to get 250,000 young unemployed people off benefits and into work

is one of the five pledges on our pledge card. There is no doubt we have

to deliver on this and we accept that challenge.’



NEW DEAL VARIANTS: Weighing up the options



In September 1998, employment minister Andrew Smith announced that

23,000 young people had secured jobs through the New Deal. He added that

a further 8,940 young people are involved in work experience and

training on other New Deal options and in total almost 25,000 employers

have signed New Deal agreements.



On the surface, these figures look encouraging, but the true test of the

programme will come next year when employers who have signed up for the

New Deal are given the option whether or not to offer their New Dealer a

permanent job. The New Deal was launched nationally in April to young

people who have been unemployed for six months or more. This first wave

was taken through a four-month ’gateway’ period, during which they

received coaching and advice to help decide which of the four options

(employment, voluntary sector work, joining the Environmental Task Force

or full-time education or training) they wished to take up. The status

quo is not an option. These placements will last six months, meaning

that it will be February 1998 before it is known how many new dealers

have secured permanent employment.



Smith explains the philosophy of the programme. ’It is not so much a

question of convincing employers to take on a candidate - it is about

matching the right candidate with the right employer. Therefore we can’t

promise we’ll have a candidate right away, but when we recommend someone

they will be suitable.’



He adds: ’If anything, many employers are now wondering where their

first New Deal referral has got to.’



Now that the New Deal for young people is underway, the Government is

busy launching similar New Deals for people with disabilities, lone

parents and the long-term unemployed. Ideas for the future include a

self employment option.



Smith is keen to stress that his employment programme is different from

its predecessors in that the Government is willing to listen to the

views of the people concerned and if appropriate, adopt some of their

suggestions.



An example of this occurred earlier this year when the New Deal received

a major drubbing in the music press and by the music industry - leaders

of which New Labour had been courting. There was concern that budding

young musicians would be forced into ’inappropriate’ jobs and prevented

from developing a career in music. Smith says he met with leading

figures in the music industry and talked the issue through.



’We have put together a variant in the New Deal framework which will

allow musicians to practice and to either go on educational training,

which will help develop their careers in music, or indeed move onto self

employment as musicians. We are looking at this as a pilot - it might be

applied more generally in the creative industries.’



He adds: ’This variant received favourably coverage in the youth press,

but got more critical coverage in the more general press where it was

dubbed ’rock and dole’. That doesn’t bother me - what we’ve done is

apply the same philosophy to the music industry as we have to

construction, health service or engineering industries - working with

them to see how the New Deal best meets the demands of their

industries.’



While the music press may have reacted favourably to the variants, it is

fair to say the media in general has been less than supportive of the

programme as a whole. The Government may be losing the current battle,

but the war could yet be won next year, when it is announced just how

many permanent jobs have been created as a result of the New Deal.



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