It is a no-win; every departmental announcement draws a frenzy of faux outrage from the opposition and so, on entering Number 10, Gordon Brown vowed to reduce the number of government spin doctors.
This week we are in the unprecedented position of Number 10 being forced to deny the resignation of strategic communications chief Stephen Carter. Formerly of Brunswick PR, Carter was brought in by Brown to sharpen up the Number 10 operation, yet is increasingly mired in internal wrangling. This week’s rumour was of his resignation – last week’s was that Carter would be given a peerage and a ministerial post.
The problem is that the darker arts of PR and politics are similar, but not the same. The PR professional subdivides audiences into socioeconomic or other groups and contextualises messages accordingly. But in politics, you have all that to do but then you have another audience of maybe 2,000 people whose names you know and whose motives are personal and unpredictable. The communications needs of a company are to have a pilot who steers the corporate ship, avoiding rocks and safely navigating stormy waters. Yet at the highest levels of politics, the guide needed isn’t someone who can steer a ship; it’s someone who can dance on the wave tips ahead of the ship.
Those 2,000 people are the MPs, peers, journalists, civil servants and opinion leaders who must be managed in order to maintain a government. They are people who can leak high-level documents when demoralised. They are the gossiping journalists.
So why are good communicators so reviled? Would Brown have mishandled the 10p tax and the election that never was with the right advice? Surely we are crying out for more and better communication, not less.
The truth is that the Labour Party has never missed Alastair Campbell more than it does today, even if, while dancing on the wave tips, he did get his feet wet from time to time.
Alex Hilton is a Labour parliamentary candidate and founder of political blogs Labourhome and Recess Monkey