With less than a month to go before Scotland’s voters go to the
polls, the PR battle between the four main parties vying for seats in
the Holyrood parliament is hotting up.
The first stage in that battle saw all four parties bolstering their
press teams. Harrison Cowley account manager Lindsay Linton, for
example, has been seconded to promote Liberal Democrat leader Jim
Wallace’s tour of Scotland (PR Week, 9 April).
Last week and this week, the parties all staged high profile launches of
their respective manifestoes. With all policy cards now on the table,
the spin doctors have ammunition to attack their competitors.
The biggest players in the fight for the 129 seats in the new parliament
are Labour and the Scottish National Party. Opinion polls give Labour
between 40 and 45 per cent of the vote, with the SNP close behind with
30 to 35 per cent.
Both parties’ strategies consist largely of attacking the other’s
While the SNP emphasises its Scottishness with the ’London Labour’
soundbite, Labour counters with its own slogan: ’divorce is an expensive
business’, referring to the SNP’s raison d’etre - independence.
Much has been made in the Scottish press of Labour’s spin operation -
including reports last December that its communications director
Lorraine Davidson was on the point of quitting. Stung by this type of
attack, the party is now excessively secretive of the size and content
of its outfit.
While Davidson, a former TV journalist, ordinarily heads the press
operation - now numbering about ten staff - she is currently being
helped by David Whitton, Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar’s former
special adviser who shed the shackles of the civil service a few weeks
ago to become the leader’s campaign media co-ordinator.
The SNP’s 12-strong team is led by communications director Kevin
Pringle is SNP born and bred, having joined the party as a researcher
fresh from college ten years ago. The SNP is the only party to combine
PR for the party and the leader in one role. But, Pringle says: ’Alex
Salmond does his own PR. He’s so well-known and the media generally like
In true Mandelson style, Scottish Labour’s PR is slick. ’Our media
centre is on the ninth floor of an office with stunning views,’ says
’When we launched our manifesto, we had our five election pledges marked
out on a ’Scottish New Labour’ backdrop down one wall. There was a
raised dais for cameras and all the journalists had a seat,’ he glows.
He contrasts this with what he calls the relatively inaccessible
’L-shaped room’ the SNP chose for its launch.
The Liberal Democrats are careful to position themselves away from this
two-way sniping. As the third party, it is likely to hold the balance of
power under the part-proportional Scottish electoral system, which is
not expected to deliver an overall majority.
Although anti-independence, the party is not pushing this line as part
of its campaign, well aware that it could end up sharing power with the
SNP. The party is instead selling itself as ’raising the standard’ - of
the debate, as well as the Scottish flag.
Denis Robertson Sullivan, managing director of PS Communication
Consultants and part-time LibDem campaign strategist, admits: ’We have
to be careful not be too triumphalist. There’s been a sustained
onslaught by both Labour and the Conservatives on the SNP. We are
recognised as being likely to hold the balance of power. The challenge
for us is to not be too boring.’
His attempt to meet this challenge involves ’creativity’, rather than
backbiting, grabbing headlines with images like last week’s photo
opportunity of Wallace on his ’battle bus’ crossing the water between
the mainland and Argyll.
The LibDems have yet to convince the Scottish electorate of Wallace’s
credibility as a leader. His press secretary Peter Curtis, a former BT
media relations man, tacitly admits this. ’The Scottish campaign is
evolving into a presidential style,’ he says. ’Jim’s been around a long
time and when people discover him, they love him.’
If Wallace’s recognition value is lower than Dewar’s or Salmond’s,
Scottish Conservative leader David McLetchie is at the bottom of the
pile. The party’s well-documented failure to win any Scottish seats in
the last general election means McLetchie is not even an MP.
The Tories’ press operation is also the smallest, with only three
full-time staff. Of the three, former Scottish Enterprise PR chief Gerry
O’Brien, who serves as McLetchie’s press secretary, is based in Glasgow,
while the two press officers are in Edinburgh. Just to add to the
crossed lines, O’Brien is widely rumoured to be funded not by the party
but by Tory donor and businessman Irvine Laidlaw.
Still, this does not seem to stop the Conservatives from lashing out:
their poster featuring Salmond as a Teletubby ’living in Scot la-la
land’ was widely reported when it launched last week.
The Conservatives are not exerting themselves in vain. As Scottish
Conservative press officer Mark Morley says: ’We have no parliamentary
profile in Scotland, but the proportional system means we are guaranteed
to get members in the Scottish Parliament.’ Along similar lines to the
SNP, one of the Conservatives’ main arguments for wresting power from
Scottish Labour is that it is run from Millbank.
With the SNP and the Tories chipping away at its reputation and the
prospect of having to powershare with the Liberal Democrats at Holyrood,
Labour has the most to lose in this PR battle.