Analysis: When the director becomes the star

With Alastair Campbell's departure from Downing Street closer than ever, Ian Hall rounds up the latest developments and asks political communicators what Campbell taught them and what they'd have done differently. Below, Joe Lepper profiles David Hill, the front runner for Campbell's job.

As PRWeek goes to press, Alastair Campbell remains in his post as the Government's director of strategy and communications, despite his departure from Number 10 seeming ever more imminent.

Notwithstanding the current holiday season, both the Prime Minister and Campbell will have held intense discussions about how the latter's departure - which will be widely heralded as the end of an era - should be timed and also, perhaps, spun.

Critics predict Campbell will handle his own exit with a characteristically efficient valedictory flourish. Indeed, reports claim a press release announcing his adieu was first drafted as long as three months ago. But the history books will no doubt ultimately cast him as having been forced into a departure due to the spin doctor's cardinal PR sin - becoming the story himself.

An avalanche of press coverage centred on Campbell has been triggered by his battle with the BBC, which resulted from Radio 4 Today defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan's allegation that Downing Street had 'sexed up' a dossier on Iraq to strengthen the case for war.

According to data from media monitoring firm Presswatch Media, Campbell scored a personal record volume of 1,194 mentions in the national press last month (see chart), more than the cumulative total of the entire previous 12 months.

This past year aside, coverage of Campbell in the nationals has risen from just 214 articles in which he was a key subject of the piece in 1997, to 818 during 2002.

This year he has already been the subject of more than 1,600 articles, and has become the story to the extent that his presence in Government is widely seen as contaminating the New Labour brand he himself did so much to establish.

Even Tony Blair's detractors would acknowledge the initial success of that brand, the creation of which a PRWeek panel last year selected as the best consumer PR campaign of all time (PRWeek, 29 March 2002).

Campbell has been Blair's most trusted political confidante since being appointed as his chief spokesman in 1994, after a distinguished early career in journalism that culminated in a stint as political editor of the Daily Mirror. Following the landslide victory of 1997, and after six years of speaking to the press on Blair's behalf, Campbell began to step back from handling daily lobby briefings in 2000 to concentrate on the presentation of longer-term Government strategy.

But even since taking the strategy role, the volume of coverage of Campbell has maintained a resolutely upward trend, despite a slight dip last year, and he has clearly found it impossible to avoid the regular sparring with journalists he enjoyed from the other side of the bunker in his early career.

The furore over Cherie Blair's 'lifestyle guru' Carole Caplin late last year and, rather more emphatically, the continued stand-off with the BBC and the inquiry into last month's death of weapons expert Dr David Kelly, have seen Campbell's profile soar to unprecedented heights.

Despite widespread reports that Blair will follow the departure of Campbell by trying to declare Labour a spin-free zone, and consciously attempting to consign the era of spin to the history books, it seems unlikely that the media's obsession with the subject will fall substantially. They always seem to like a story in which they can be protagonist as well as observer.

Whoever takes on the role - and a raft of names has so far been mooted - will have a tough task attempting to return the media's focus to the substance and not the spin of Government policy.

POLITICAL PROS ON ALASTAIR CAMPBELL'S LEGACY

SHEILA GUNN - press spokesman to PM John Major, 1995-97

'For years, Campbell manipulated media coverage by playing journalists off against each other. His tactics imbued the Government with a nasty smell, which eventually tainted his boss. Ultimately he lost his punching power, with an increasing number of politicians and journalists refusing to be bullied or trust him.'

ALAN LEAMAN - Liberal Democrat director of strategy 1995-1997

'Although no one will acknowledge it, Campbell brought more openness to Government comms. The daily lobby briefing is now available to everyone via the net and Blair himself is giving monthly press conferences. The strangest puzzle is why Labour never understood how much good will they enjoyed. Their aggression hid a defensive approach to communications that has turned natural supporters into sceptics.'

PETER MACMAHON - press secretary to Henry McLeish 2000- 2001

'Campbell spearheaded a presentation revolution across Whitehall. The civil service media operation had fallen behind modern practices. There were more proactive media initiatives, quicker response times and rapid rebuttal. The downside was that some political advisers thought they were "the masters now". They forgot that Labour was in government, not opposition.'

JOHN UNDERWOOD - comms director, The Labour Party, 1990-1991

'Campbell played a big part in getting Labour elected and then re-elected. He did a wonderful job of presenting the Labour Government as "safe" and "conservative",when in reality it pursued a number of quite radical initiatives. When it comes to replacing him, I would advise Blair to hire a professional communications chief who knows the lobby and Labour, and has no need or desire for self-aggrandisement. Only one name springs to mind ... David Hill. Pay him whatever it takes, Tony.'

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