OPINION: News Analysis - Stage-managed events undone by reality check. Set-piece events play a role in election campaigning, but parties should not take success for granted, says Gidon Freeman

Classic PR techniques at the manifesto launches did not save the

political parties from a struggle to capture the public's

imagination.



In business, agreeing not to launch a product on the same day as that of

a rival might be the actions of an anti-competitive cartel. In politics,

there is a gap between manifesto launches to allow each party a crack at

undisturbed coverage. Sadly for PR planners, unforeseen events force

manifesto write-ups down the running orders and into the inside pages.

The Tories seized the initiative by launching their manifesto first.



They set the agenda for much of the campaign's first week. While Peter

Mandelson was berating his successors for focusing on spin instead of a

vision of the future, the Tories were earning plaudits for controlling

the issues debated in their own interests.



And yet despite praise for five good days, the polls had slipped for the

Tories by the weekend. One former Tory PRO says: 'If they can't gain

momentum with a four-day head start, it's difficult to see when they

can. They lack credibility so even if people are taken by the

tax-cutting agenda, Tories are not believed.'



Despite the Lib Dem rating remaining static throughout the campaign so

far, it is that party's launch that has seen the most marked advance

since 1997. Some party members grumble that designing it as a tabloid

newspaper, while cute, would only work if it had also been written as a

newspaper, and that weak execution undermined a clever idea.



Lib Dem campaigners remain upbeat because many of them look back at

their 1997 manifesto launch, when it was only given a look-in in the

later stages of TV news, and barely bothered the front pages.



Timing is key, according to Ben Rich, an aide to party leader Charles

Kennedy. In 1997, the Lib Dems launched first, and without a recent

benchmark for how much space they should give the story, editors tended

to share the view the Lib Dems were a small and un-newsworthy party.



This time, the Lib Dems came second. The Tory launch already had acres

of coverage a few days before, and a rare sense of balance led most

outlets to cover the Lib Dem launch in detail. 'The coverage was better

than in 1997, mainly because of timing,' Rich says.



Labour's plans to maximise coverage included a briefing at Millbank the

afternoon before. Reporters were denied advance copies of the manifesto,

which launched in Birmingham the next day. But they were briefed about

items officials thought were likely to grab front pages.



The broadsheets led on news that the Government would set out a vision

for the increasing role of private firms in running public services.



As it turned out, Millbank's plan to get two days of such coverage

floundered on Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's violent reaction to

having an egg thrown at him in north Wales. But Labour campaigners

insist there is nothing wrong with the routine trick of briefing before

announcements.



'If that happened in commercial PR, everyone would say, 'how clever',

but because it's politics everyone says 'how sinister'. It's laughable,'

says one.



The Prescott punch - and the woman who harangued Blair about her

partner's poor cancer treatment on his way to a hospital - epitomise the

triumph of spontaneity over planning.



Labour sources are reluctant to admit this. 'Tactically it stepped on

the second day story,' says former Tory election strategist and recent

Labour convert Ceri Evans. 'But in outcome it was

neutral-to-positive.



Most people had made their minds up about Prescott already. I don't

think voters changed their minds as a result of the punch,' he said.



Despite the fact election planners dislike being blown off course by

unforeseen events, the drama of campaigns make it certain such twists

will happen again.



THE CONSERVATIVE PARTY BUSINESS MANIFESTO LAUNCH



Ten minutes before William Hague launched his business manifesto this

week, chaos reigned at Central Office. Party PROs mingled with reporters

waiting for the nod that the throng could enter the press room.



PR head Amanda Platell made small-talk with a radio reporter as Hague

and shadow chancellor Michael Portillo breezed in. Party chairman

Michael Ancram was brisk with his opening remarks - he knew his audience

was on its third press call of the day - before handing over to Hague,

whose own comments are pithy, rarely breaking ten seconds per

statement.



For the benefit of the cameras, everything in the room reinforces the

focus group-tested slogan 'Common Sense for Britain'. Posters from

earlier in the campaign have come to Smith Square to die, papering the

walls with this phrase. It is also reproduced in miniature behind the

platform and serves as a backdrop to TV hacks when they deliver their

pieces to camera after the show.



Portillo and Hague are together because the day's issue is the economy,

but it also conveys a message of unity when the morning's FT carries

tales of Tory splits. Other tricks used include picking journalists by

name - 'yes Andy ... you're next Trevor' - flattery being a well-worn

tactic with TV egos.



When an unanswerable question about troubled frontbencher Oliver

Letwin's comments on Tory spending plans is repeated for the seventh

time, Hague calls a halt.



Print reporters shift sideways to prise extra details out of a gaggle of

press officers, while the TV political editors exit fast to reach their

cameras in the foyer. Hague, Portillo and Ancram have already left the

building.



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