Analysis: Campbell's legacy to the PR world

In under a decade, Alastair Campbell has transformed political PR and arguably gained more column inches than most of the Cabinet. PRWeek editor-in-chief Kate Nicholas looks at the legacy this so called 'master of spin' has left for the PR industry.

So Alastair Campbell is finally to turn his back on the business of 'spin' after nine years at Tony Blair's side, and is to return to the world of journalism, albeit as a freelancer, theoretically bringing to an end the run of pages in PRWeek dedicated to the vicissitudes of his extraordinary career.

In reality, however, Campbell is likely to cast a long shadow not only over the political arena, but also the world of PR.

While Campbell has always been very wary of casting himself as a PR man, he has exerted enormous influence over this profession.

Although he certainly did not invent 'spin', Campbell has been one of its most ardent practitioners, and the press has never made a clear distinction between government and commercial media relations when writing about this craft.

In research undertaken earlier this year for PRWeek, Echo Research found that nearly two thirds of journalists questioned automatically associated PR with spin, and nearly 50 per cent associated PR with hiding/concealing truths (PRWeek, 28 March). This is a perception the industry has to date failed to deal with and is likely to have to live with for a very long time.

This is not to suggest, however ,that Campbell's sole legacy to the PR industry is a negative one - far from it.

That both his character and the impact he has had are complex is evident from the spectrum of reactions to his resignation, which have ranged from the wounded and vitriolic to the disarmingly affectionate. That these testimonials and the news of his impending departure dominated the nationals last weekend is unprecendented. Departing members of the Cabinet have generated less newsprint than this 'spin meister' - a concept that only two terms ago would have appeared faintly ludicrous.

His achievements have been immense. Together with Peter Mandelson, Campbell transformed a hitherto shambolic Labour media operation. As Labour pollster Philip Gould has admitted, the old Labour communications structure was badly co-ordinated, with unclear lines of reporting and responsibility, and was incapable of being proactive.

When Campbell gave up his post at Today to take up the press chief's role in 1994, he was involved in importing a whole range of campaign techniques successfully used by President Clinton's team, ranging from the creation of a single 'war room' at Millbank to a 24-hour monitoring operation and rapid rebuttal system.

Campbell was there at the start of the emerging 24-hour news cycle and was one of the first to realise that the PR industry had to change to fit the increasing demands on journalists.

Bringing The Sun on side was one of Campbell's greatest PR coups, but he never managed to achieve the same feat with the Daily Mail.

Despite this failure, Campbell has an instinctive understanding of Middle England and helped a previously unelectable party to re-engage with a section of society that had come to fear 'the reds under the beds'.

But it was once Labour came to power that he wielded the greatest influence.

Blair's decision to create unprecedented power for his press spokesman enabled him to break down the 'silo' mentality that permeated Whitehall comms, and to create the kind of control over party messaging that his critics both envied and lambasted.

Campbell also extended the Government's relationship with the media, introducing the Prime Minister's televised conferences, extending briefings to foreign media, specialist journalists, ethnic press and even using day-time TV shows in order to explore less conventional ways of getting his message to the people and bypassing what he saw as the distorting prism of the lobby.

But it was his disdain for the lobby and his growing cynicism of the media that was also his greatest failing. Over his time in office, his antipathy towards the media increased, and during his rare interviews and public appearences (including on a couple of occasions before PR practitioners) he would rail against the media's constant self-referral, and once said that the partisan nature of reporting was such that the media had become the effective opposition.

He also believed that the 'red button' approach of media that invite the public to vote on political issues raises unrealistic expectations and, in the long term, has increased public disengagement with politics.

On the other hand while Blair may claim of Campbell that 'those who know him best, like him best', tales of bullying and humiliation and an almost obsessive desire to counter any inaccuracy are rife among journalists.

There is no doubt that he has contributed significantly to a dangerously embattled relationship between the Government and the media - the more he tried to control, the more entrenched became press antagonism, particularly among the right-wing papers. And the full implications of the dramatic breakdown of relations between the Government and the BBC have yet to emerge.

So will Campbell's departure lead, as Blair hopes, to the death of spin?

It is possible, but unlikely. While Campbell's aggression towards the media no doubt fuelled much of the focus on process that ironically caused him so much frustration, the undoubted shift among the press to a focus on personality rather than policies will continue to require careful management. The treatment already being meted out to his successor, David Hill, suggests that old habits die hard with the media.

To a great extent, Campbell was a one-off. His own damaging prominence as a public figure, and the level of control exerted over every aspect of government comms, were probably more a result of his driven personality than the comms structure per se. In many respects, as a PR man, his sheer drive was both his greatest strength and greatest weakness.

Over the past few days, PRWeek has received repeated press calls asking whether we believe Campbell will will follow the lead of others, such as Anji Hunter, and move into private-sector PR? Our response - seriously, what job would be big enough?

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.

News by email...