How Karl Rove and the Labour Party inspired Alex Aiken's approach to comms

The political comms veteran has left behind the battle of party politics, but even in the civil service he has lost none of his fire, finds John Owens.

Targeting the top: Alex Aiken
Targeting the top: Alex Aiken

If civil servants are supposed to duck the spotlight and stick to bland platitudes, it seems no-one has told Alex Aiken.

Questioned on their influences, a less combative person might mumble some pleasantries about former bosses. The Government's newly anointed comms tsar is in feistier mood.

'My approach to comms is the bastard child of what I learned from Karl Rove (George Bush's adviser) and what I took from my friends in the Labour Party,' says Aiken. His self-analysis is playful. Characteristically, it is also straight to the point.

'From Labour it was media handling and rapid rebuttal,' he says, 'and from Rove it was the importance of strategy, segmentation and campaigning.'

The combination is potent - he is talking about New Labour circa 2001 - and, during a period when Government comms spend has halved since 2010, it will also be essential. Indeed, government figures released this week (see page 2) show government comms spend will continue to be tightly restricted. Aiken has been drafted in to ensure more is done with less.

Aiken's rhetoric on the cuts - 'It's about how we spend the pounds, not how many pounds we spend' - is right on message. But there are signs the 46-year-old is living up to his reputation for shaking things up.

Since he took up his role earlier this year, a hectic schedule has included leading work on a £100,000 staff training scheme, promoting the importance of digital comms and cutting red tape on partnerships with outside organisations.

Plans to bring about 'exceptional' - Aiken uses this word regularly - performance include driving home the importance of evaluation, publishing comms plans for all government departments, and upping public interaction with decision making.

And how to bring about this change?

When you have depleted PR teams and competing interests to deal with, the key, it seems, is careful use of carrot and stick.

Aiken is widely respected but also known for not suffering fools gladly.

Vanessa Canzini, director of employee comms at eBay Europe, who worked with him in Conservative Central Office in 1999, notes: 'Alex is demanding, fiercely loyal and great fun. He is challenging to the point of exhaustion, but for those who can keep up, the rewards are plentiful.'

Shortly after taking the job, an article in The Daily Telegraph welcomed his arrival but poked fun at the way he was giving senior civil servants used to a gentler ride 'both barrels'. Aiken denies he has a confrontational style, calling it part of bringing a 'businesslike' atmosphere to comms.

Keen to offer support and leadership, he does, however, make no bones about aiming high: 'We need to make government comms exceptional through co-ordinated activity and value for money, which has not always been the case in the past few years. It has been through a massive change, and downsizing has not been accompanied by restructuring to match resources available.'

The father of two's sharp, straight delivery belies a self-deprecating streak and softer side indicated by a post-interview request for his children Georgia, nine, and Harry, six, to get a mention.

His emphasis on being 'businesslike' also hides a passion for the challenge of changing how people do things.

Though he says those at the top of government recognise the importance of comms, there is still work to be done. 'We have a task to educate policy people and senior directors on the worth of sustained campaigns for changing public behaviour,' he says.

There is no doubt he still has a task on his hands. It says something that until Aiken's arrival regular meetings between departmental comms heads had all but stopped.

How did it get to that point? Praising his predecessors, Aiken nonetheless points to churn at the top, which saw Jenny Grey replaced on an interim basis by Godric Smith, before he was given the full-time role.

'I'm the third director of comms in less than a year. It's inevitable.'

If Aiken can brush off criticism as 'taking the rough with the smooth', it is partly because he was raised in the rough and tumble of party politics.

Aiken helped transform the comms of the Conservatives' flagship Westminster City Council, but it was before that 13-year stint that he found unwanted fame.

As senior press officer for the Tories, he was photographed grappling with a Daily Mirror reporter dressed as a chicken on the 1997 campaign trail.

His brush with the front pages did not stop him eventually heading up campaigns for the party. But Aiken is by no means deferential. In fact, he points to the John Major era as an example of 'comms not keeping pace with the rate of change'.

As a civil servant, Aiken's role is not a political one. Since joining he has not yet met David Cameron's divisive strategist Lynton Crosby. But as a man tasked with conveying the Government's agenda, he meets fortnightly with Cameron's director of comms Craig Oliver. He says he rates Oliver as 'sharp, thoughtful and focused' and says one 'recurring conversation' is on how central digital needs to be to future strategy.

And how closely does this former politico stick to his vow that he is 'determined' to abide by the neutrality demanded in the civil service code? When provoked to give his views on the public perception of Government, there is a rare hesitation.

'That's not really one for me,' he says.

Full marks, though what uber-politicos Rove and the New Labour spinners would make of such restraint, heaven knows.

CV

2013 Executive director of government comms, HM Government

2009 Director of comms and strategy, Westminster City Council

2003-5 Joint head of comms, Westminster and Richmond upon Thames councils

2000 Head of comms, Westminster City Council

1999 Deputy director of political operations, Conservative Party

1997 Head of news, Conservative Party

1995 Chief press officer, Conservative Party

1992 Press officer, Conservative Party

1991 Director, Radical Society

Tips from the top

What was your biggest career break?

Being asked by Archie Norman to establish and run the Conservative Party's Campaigns Unit in 1999 - it broadened my comms and policy skills away from the press office environment.

Have you had a notable mentor?

I have listened to great advice from genuine leaders - Charles Lewington at the Conservative Party, Sir Peter Rogers at Westminster and Richard Heaton at the Cabinet Office.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

Take every opportunity - try things, fail fast and learn and succeed next time. And read everything you can in business and comms to develop the knowledge you need to solve problems.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

The right attitude - a desire to work hard, get to grips with detail, get things done and succeed.

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