ANALYSIS: Political Communications - The synchronisation of the Tory Party message. The Tories are taking steps to get their communications as ’on message’ as Labour, but whether they can achieve that without a clear PR figurehead remains

Late last month the Conservative Party decided to integrate its communications and research departments into a single ’war room’ in a bid to maximise its PR effort and unify the message it is sending out.

Late last month the Conservative Party decided to integrate its

communications and research departments into a single ’war room’ in a

bid to maximise its PR effort and unify the message it is sending

out.



The logistics of the move mean walls will be literally knocked down in

Tory Central Office’s august Smith Square building and the research

department will join the press office on the first floor in a modern

open plan space dotted with electronic links to national radio and TV

stations. What the integrated department won’t have, however, is a

co-ordinating communications head.



Andrew Cooper will continue to oversee the press office and news

management as director of political operations - a title which replaced

that of director of communications after Cooper’s predecessor, Francis

Halewood, resigned late last year. He will work alongside head of

research Daniel Finkelstein and party leader William Hague’s press

secretary Gregor MacKay, who completes the tripartite war room

leadership.



All three report jointly to party chief executive Archie Norman on

organisational matters and chairman Cecil Parkinson on political

matters.



Explaining the rationale behind the changes Cooper says: ’It is about

bringing all the disciplines together so that we can ensure in the

campaigning on the ground, in the speeches, in the briefs, the press

releases and the soundbites in the broadcast media, that we are all

reflecting the same strategy, the same priorities and the same

language.’



The introduction of an intranet, known as CONtext, linking Central

Office, Conservative peers, MPs and the regional campaign offices, will

no doubt help Cooper’s aim become a reality. ’Our communications in

Government did not fundamentally develop during the years in office, and

that was a period when there were huge communications revolutions,’ he

admits.



But, however hi-tech the Tories’ press and campaigning operation has

become, critics identify a yawning, Peter Mandelson-shaped, gap in terms

of strategy. While Cooper, Finkelstein and MacKay have their respective

strengths, none is an experienced political PR thinker.



Cooper and Finkelstein’s roots lie in the party’s research

department.



MacKay, a former special adviser to Ian Lang, is well respected among

lobby correspondents but, at 29, has some years to go before matching

Alastair Campbell’s media experience.



Hague’s only attempt at overarching communications leadership backfired

spectacularly when he appointed his close ally the MP for Rutland and

Melton, Alan Duncan, as vice-chairman of communications for the

party.



After a series of PR blunders including Hague’s claim that Prime

Minister Tony Blair tried to exploit the death of Diana, Princess of

Wales for political ends last September, Duncan was removed from the

brief.



The absence of a PR head may not matter at this time in the

Parliamentary calendar: the next general election is sufficiently far

away to warrant a relatively low-key PR effort, based on responding to

the Government rather than proactively communicating the party’s

manifesto. Understandably the post of director of communications at this

time is a relatively unchallenging and therefore undesirable one. But

this will no doubt change as the next election draws closer.



Charles Lewington, the party’s director of communications from 1995 to

1997, who initiated the move towards greater integration of the research

and communications departments, says: ’My instinct tells me that in

time, having two or three quasi spin doctors will not work and will

leave confusion when a disciplined message is crucial.’



Cooper, however, says that, while the party’s communications will shift

several gears upwards in the 18 months before the next general election,

there are no plans to recruit a new communications supremo in the

foreseeable future.



David Hill, Labour’s chief media spokesperson until earlier this year

and now a director of Bell Pottinger Good Relations, is perhaps

unsurprisingly scathing about his old political enemies’ efforts,

identifying another hole in their PR operation. ’They are trying to

emulate the last two to three years of our newsroom in which all the

elements worked towards delivering the message, but you cannot do that

if you don’t have a clearly defined message,’ he says.



In their shoes, Hill says he would now be working out the structure and

key figures of the communications department but would not have put the

format in place before the year 2000. He says: ’We had to have a period

when the policy unit was developing policy and the press office was just

keeping things ticking along. But they are miles from that.’



Tories would probably argue, with some justification, that they are

doing just that. While Hague whistlestops his way around the country

’listening to Britain’, and the Central Office policy staff churn the

results up into policies, the war room boys are sending out a unified

anti-Government message. The real test of the war room’s success will

come when its mandarins are charged with communicating their policies

and rebutting attacks by Labour’s awesome PR strategists in the run-up

to the next general election.



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