Opinion divided on Craig Oliver's appointment as Downing Street comms chief

Senior political comms professionals have expressed mixed views over the appointment of BBC journalist Craig Oliver as Downing Street director of comms.

Surprise move: David Cameron appointed Craig Oliver
Surprise move: David Cameron appointed Craig Oliver

News of Oliver's recruitment as Andy Coulson's successor broke last week, shortly after PRWeek went to press.

Oliver is currently head of BBC Global News, and was previously editor of BBC News at Ten and BBC News at Six, Britain's two most-watched news programmes. From 2002 to 2006, he was the head of output at ITV News.

While Oliver's broadcast journalism credentials are impeccable, some critics have seized on his lack of political and tabloid experience.

Tim Collins, MD at Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, said: 'The real question is whether Oliver is enough of a bruiser, and sufficiently dedicated to a PM he barely knows.

'The most effective Downing Street spokesmen such as Bernard Ingham and Alastair Campbell mixed bile, threat, hatred of their PM's rivals and canine levels of devotion to their boss.

'The job is not an interesting career move - it has to be an all-consuming passion. Do Messrs Cameron and Oliver realise that? The jury is out.'

Eben Black, DLA Piper's director and former News of The World political editor, said: 'It does seem a strange turnaround to replace a tabloid bad-boy from one end of the spectrum with a member of the BBC elite from the other.'

But Portland partner George Pascoe-Watson, previously one of the bookies' favourites to replace Coulson, gave his backing to Oliver, describing him as 'more populist than most in the sometimes snooty world of TV news'.

Meanwhile, Hanover MD Charles Lewington suggested that Oliver would do well precisely because he is not a 'tribal beast'.

Other leading political PROs also gave Oliver the thumbs-up. Weber Shandwick EMEA CEO Colin Byrne said: 'The appointment recognises that in the internet age and with TV still playing a decisive role in citizen comms, another ex-tabloid hack is not the answer to modern government comms.'

Jonathan Oliver, director of media relations at TLG and former Sunday Times political editor, said: 'Craig's unrivalled understanding of the BBC's hidden wiring plugs an important knowledge gap for the Prime Minister's inner circle.'

 

IN STATISTICS

41 - Craig Oliver's age

19 - Number of years' experience in broadcast journalism

1 - Number of years as controller of English services at BBC Global News

4 - Number of years as head of output at ITV News

 

THE RIGHT CHOICE? TOP PR CONSULTANTS GIVE THEIR VERDICT

George Pascoe-Watson, partner, Portland

Whoever wins the support of David Cameron and George Osborne is the right choice as director of comms. Craig Oliver would be unable to do his job without carrying the authority of the PM and the Chancellor. From them comes the power needed to ensure the government gets its message across.

Craig's raced to the top of news-gathering at the BBC and ITV in a relatively short period of time and orchestrated coverage for two general elections. He's no mug. He's also had the discipline to keep his political views to himself as an impartial broadcaster must do.

This is one of the world's loneliest and toughest jobs. Mistakes are cruelly exposed and every waking moment Craig will have to be on his guard. It's vital he gets to know ministers and key backbenchers in lightning-quick time - and forge relationships with newspaper editors, political editors and columnists.

But Craig is a very talented journalist.  He knows how to make relationships and how to read people. He's more populist than most in the sometimes snooty world of telly news. He's thick-skinned enough not to be deflected by what people think of him. That's an essential quality in his new role.

And as long as he keeps the chairman and chief executive close, he'll thrive.

 

Charles Lewington, managing director, Hanover

The Cameron brand was built with the brilliant use of pictures. Huskies in the snow, frisbies on the beach, cooking in the kitchen on YouTube and sleeves rolled up at Cameron Direct events.

His personal photographer Andrew Parsons and video specialist Nicky Woodhouse were tasked with portraying him as a down-to-earth bloke, accessible and transparent – the exact opposite of the Eton toff beloved of Gordon Brown’s attack dogs.  

Sustaining that image in office has been harder. A Downing Street insider asked me recently: ‘How do you portray a man in touch with ordinary people during tough economic times when the Prime Minister’s diary is full of summits and handshakes with world leaders?’  

None of us, therefore, should be surprised that he has hired broadcaster Craig Oliver who is an astute journalist and won plaudits for popularising the BBC’s normally dry General Election coverage.  Critics who say that he is not a ‘known Tory’ like Andy Coulson misunderstand the nature of Cameron himself. The Prime Minister does not want or need a tribal beast who can spin stories into tabloids; he needs a creative eye who understands him and has a popular touch.

 That being said there are still two skill-sets that are still missing from the Number 10 line up. The message is not getting across to leader writers and commentators who are mistakenly cynical about what is driving the ‘Big Society’ idea. Secondly, reforming governments need first class strategic stakeholder management – aligning third parties in support of controversial policies.  

 

Colin Byrne, EMEA CEO, Weber Shandwick

I think it is a very sensible appointment by the PM. He already has staff with good relations with the lobby. He avoids another corrosive ³spin doctor² or News International row.

And the appointment recognises that in the internet age, and with TV still playing a decisive role in citizen communications, another ex-tabloid hack is not the answer to modern Government communications.

 

Tim Collins, MD, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs

The BBC is by far the most influential news outlet in the UK, so it is smart to have someone who understands them. The real question is whether Craig Oliver is enough of a bruiser, and sufficiently dedicated to a PM he barely knows.

The most effective Downing Street spokesmen like Bernard Ingham and Alastair Campbell mixed bile, threat, hatred of their PM's rivals and canine levels of devotion to their boss. The job is not an interesting career move - it has to be an all-consuming passion. Do Messrs Cameron and Oliver realise that? The jury is out.

 

Matt Carter, CEO of Burson Marsteller

This is the sort of job you could describe euphemistically as ‘an interesting brief’; a role that requires huge quantities of skill and stamina in equal measure.
 
Oliver has to deal with the relentless intensity of working at the centre of British politics, fighting every single day to stop the Cameron spin machine being blown off course by events.  

Although supposedly a ‘backroom figure’, he also needs to get used to everything he does being discussed and examined by the media.  And he needs to fit quickly into ‘team Cameron’, which has been working together closely for years and will inevitably see him as an outsider.  

 

Jonathan Oliver, director of media relations, TLG

The printed press is influential, but its power is in inexorable decline. Digital media is growing exponentially, but it is not yet the primary source of news for most of us. However, broadcast – and more specifically the BBC - is the unchallenged king of the media jungle. Those were the headline findings of TLG’s recent research into how the media shapes corporate reputations.

The BBC is equally important in the making and breaking of political reputations - as demonstrated by Craig Oliver’s appointment to the most powerful job in political public relations. Government ministers and spin doctors already have close relationships with the broadcasters’ on-screen stars such as Nick Robinson or Robert Peston.

However, many of the most important decisions are made by a powerful but anonymous editors and producers based in White City, or – when 5Live’s northern move is completed – Salford Quays. Craig’s unrivalled understanding of the BBCs hidden wiring plugs an important knowledge gap for the prime minister’s inner circle.

The biggest challenge he now faces is the same challenge faced by all journalists moving into public relations – learning how to rise above the frenetic 24-hour news cycle and focus on the long view. What really matters is not tomorrow’s 8.10am slot on the Today programme, but how that programme will be covering politics on the eve of the next general election in four years time.

 

Eben Black, director, DLA Piper Global Government Relations

At least this time David Cameron can be sure that none of his new comms chief's former staff have been involved in phone hacking.

Well, you would hope he could. But it does seem a strange turn-around to replace a tabloid bad-boy at one end of the spectrum with a member of the BBC elite from the other.

Perhaps Cameron has had enough of taking a middle way after dealing with the Coalition for 9 months. 

 

Lucian Hudson, MD, Cornerstone Global Associates

At this stage of the electoral cycle, this appointment shows that Cameron is more interested in policy communication than in getting one over his opponents.

The press office can be left to its job on specific issues - what's missing is coherent presentation of the government's overall strategy.

 

Tim Fallon, head of corporate and international affairs, Hill & Knowlton UK

Having a strong broadcast background is clearly an advantage. However, I would be concerned about Craig Oliver’s lack of real political experience.

Both Cameron and Clegg are under heavy scrutiny from within their own rank and file.

Anyone responsible for handling Downing Streets news agenda has to understand the cultural tensions within the coalition, not just the expectations from the media pack.’

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