ANALYSIS: Black is ready to repackage Tories

The new communications director of the Conservative Party, Guy Black, talks exclusively to PRWeek about the challenge ahead, while (right) former party PROs offer their advice on how he should proceed

Press Complaints Commission director Guy Black will next month take up the reins as press secretary to Tory leader Michael Howard. After seven years in the PCC role, and a career that has included a stint at public affairs consultancy Westminster Strategy, Black believes he has the right combination of skills to make a success of the job.

'I'm not starting for another month, and I never know why people get chosen for specific jobs, but I've acquired a host of skills in the last 15 years,' he says. 'I have heard it said that being in the middle of public debates for the last few years means I have both an understanding of all the major policy issues and the key personal connections that count. I would agree with that analysis.'

Those relationships, as has been well documented, include a personal friendship with The Sun editor Rebekah Wade, as well as working relationships with all other national newspaper editors - the people who either sat on the PCC during his tenure or were subject to its adjudications. These are the sort of media contacts most PROs would kill for, and they can surely only be of benefit as he strives to boost the positive coverage of the party in the media.

Black likens this high-profile and busy role, as the hands-on boss of the organisation at the heart of newspaper self-regulation, to a 'junction box' - the device 'that links the press, the public, Parliament, Westminster and Whitehall. You could say I have been in the middle of that junction box,' he says.

As for the hard slog ahead making the Conservatives a serious electoral force once more, Black is unambiguous: 'I go back a long way over these debates and there is clearly progress to be made - I wouldn't have taken the job if I didn't think there was progress to be made.'

Although he remains coy about specific plans for orchestrating a Tory revival, he is quite clear that greater integration between policy and media handling will prove crucial.

'I'm not talking in detail about how we set about getting a better profile for the party, but the key is to have both the right policies and the right presentation - they need to go side by side,' he says. 'It's no good having great policies if they aren't communicated well. All those involved have only one end in mind, which is to win the next general election.'

As a former staffer at the Conservative Party's research department, Black is clearly a Tory sympathiser, even if he is not a member of the party. 'I have been prohibited from being a party member by my current role (it is not clear why - the PCC's chairman for most of Black's tenure, Lord Wakeham, was a former Tory cabinet minister). As soon as that prohibition is lifted, I will join again,' he pledges.

He takes up his post as the party emerges from the most tumultuous period in recent times - a universally unsettling spell of unattributed briefing by anti-leadership activists, followed by the ousting through a vote of no confidence of then leader Iain Duncan Smith. The coronation by the parliamentary party of former home secretary Howard, even with no consultation of the membership at large, was generally well-received by the media amid an inescapable feeling that the Tories' PR woe of recent years was beginning to turn. Black may be joining at just the right time to capitalise on that.

For the Tory PR department, too, it has been a period of change. Out has gone director of strategic comms Paul Baverstock. Out, too, went IDS's press secretary Mike Penning, long-serving head of media Nick Wood and broadcast chief Nick Longworth.

Black is remaining diplomatically tight-lipped on how he will structure his PR operation, but it is known he will form one part of a triumvirate with policy director Greg Clarke and marketing director Will Harris, the former adland wunderkind who most recently served as vice-president of marketing at mobile phone operator mmO2.

Unusually, perhaps, for someone with a party-wide role, Black will be based at Howard's House of Commons office rather than at the party's Smith Square headquarters.

There is potential for negative publicity about this mild conflict of interest - a party-paid official working out of an office in which Howard is meant to discharge his representative rather than his political functions.

But Black plays a straight bat on this one: 'It is the right thing for me to be based at the leader's office in the Commons, so I am in close proximity to Michael Howard.'

Wherever he is based, Black has a challenge on his hands lifting the Tory's flatlining poll figures - in the low- to mid-30s for most of the last decade - to the extent that they can enter an election campaign in two years' time with any degree of confidence. Time will tell if he is the man to meet that challenge.

THE VIEW FROM EX-TORY PARTY PROS

Andrew Cooper, director of political operations from 1997 to 1999

'The Conservatives' policies don't need to change - it's the perception of the policies that needs to be addressed,' he says. 'It's not rocket science to see there's a problem with the brand. The only thing the former comms team could do was push certain policies as products, but under the same troubled brand. However, if people don't buy into the brand in the first place, the products are going to fall flat.'

Alex Aiken, ex-senior Central Office

PRO Aiken believes Guy Black and marketing director Will Harris might fare better than their immediate predecessors, simply because Michael Howard will be more committed to notions of branding and policy perception than Iain Duncan Smith. Aiken describes the difference between Howard and IDS in terms of leadership, intellect and understanding of the complexities of communication as the difference between 'Manchester United and Tranmere Rovers'.

Amanda Platell, former head of media

Platell, who led the PR function in the run up to the disastrous 2001 election, believes that despite their reputations in their respective fields of marketing and media, Harris and Black may eventually fall foul of political egos, as she did. 'They may be excellent at their jobs, but they have no experience in politics. Having been there myself, coming from a journalism background, nothing prepares you for the politicians' world,' she says.

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