If President George Bush's reaction to the events in the US last
week show him unable to speak directly to his people in traumatic times,
the response of Tony Blair to the estimated 250 British deaths has been
quite the opposite.
From the start, the Government has shown the sort of PR judgement that
makes the difference between merely coping with a crisis and finding a
silver lining to the gloomiest of clouds. Cancelling his widely trailed
speech to the TUC as the scale of the US disaster became clear was the
least he could have done. To follow it with a pledge to assist
financially in getting bereaved families to New York was an act of
generosity with obvious reputational benefits down the line.
In addition to the aid for UK families, the Government appears to have
pulled out the stops in its attempt to help British journalists. It has
been reported that senior Downing Street staff - including director of
communications and strategy Alastair Campbell - acted to urge Canada to
allow a plane chartered by the UK media to land when all US East Coast
airports were closed.
Going out of one's way to help journalists get to the biggest story for
decades was both a moral imperative and a PR masterstroke. It will have
earned a fund of goodwill to spend in the future similar in impact to
the fresh doubts that have now arisen over Bush's leadership.
Blair has had practice in managing major crises. His immediate calming
reaction to the death of Princess Diana in 1997 smacked of both guile
under pressure and sharp advisers. More recently, of course, his
handling of the fuel price campaign 12 months ago and of the
foot-and-mouth outbreak shortly after, gave reason to question his
ability to emerge with his image enhanced from difficult situations.
With his lobbying tour of Western capitals this week such doubts can be
laid to rest.
The Government is clear in its support of US action against Afghanistan,
the country which plays host to chief suspect Osama bin Laden. It cannot
be assumed on the basis of his form so far that Blair will find it easy
to bring popular will with him as he embarks on the second major
military engagement of his premiership. Indeed, the PR challenge in
steeling people for battle when the source of the battle is not simply
defending our nation cannot be overstated. And yet with the Kosovo
campaign behind him, he has experience of this, too.
It will be easier to win public support for his aims if he is seen as
acting in tandem with the grieving US - in Kosovo he was forced to spend
substantial time lobbying a reluctant US to participate. Blair has
cleared early hurdles well, but faces a long and tough road ahead.