ANALYSIS: PARTY CONFERENCE; Can PR work magic again for the Tories?

At the last general election, the Conservatives could bank on the electorate’s fear of the Opposition to ensure victory. Its PR machine has improved but will PR alone be enough?

At the last general election, the Conservatives could bank on the

electorate’s fear of the Opposition to ensure victory. Its PR machine

has improved but will PR alone be enough?



As last week’s Tory conference ended, the Party’s PR team could be

forgiven for feeling smug. What began with headlines about sleaze and

high-profile defections ended with images of a buoyant Prime Minister

and - although the rumblings over Europe continued - at least a show of

Party unity.



The transformation mirrored a revolution in the fortunes of the Tory PR

machine itself. Eleven months ago, communications director Hugh Colver

had resigned stressing, very publicly, his unwillingness to be a

political propagandist; the Labour communications team, under Peter

Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, was strengthening, and the Tories,

having failed to prove New Labour was a reincarnation of Old Labour, was

desperately seeking an effective way to assault Tony Blair.



Since then, Colver’s successor, ex-Sunday Express political editor

Charles Lewington, has boosted the size and credibility of the team,

including setting up a seven-strong regional press office network. The

network includes - for the first time - two PR agencies: in Bristol,

JBP Associates and, in Darlington, Graham Robb Media and PR.



It is, says Peter Bingle, a director of The Communication Group and a

former Conservative councillor, recognition of the importance of key

marginal seats in the next election.



Meanwhile, the high-profile marketing triumvirate, of Peter Gummer, Tim

Bell and Maurice Saatchi, has helped spawn the ‘New Labour, New Danger’

campaign, which - along with the image of hard-working John and Norma up

against Chianti-quaffing Tony and Cherie - is being communicated

strongly.



Yet commentators still point to weaknesses in the Tory PR machine.



Unlike Labour - where Mandelson and Campbell call the tune - power is

less concentrated. Besides Lewington’s central office team, there is the

Government Information Service, ministerial special advisers, Bell et

al, and other media advisers, including Tim Collins, party chairman

Brian Mawhinney’s media consultant. Co-ordinating this loose coalition

is a slow and unwieldy process.



‘Lewington has created the best overall Central Office PR machine I’ve

experienced, in the way it responds to news stories and targets local

newspapers through the regional network,’ says Bingle. ‘But he is in a

weak position to manage news since, as part of Central Office, he is

less important than Number 10 and the government departments.’



Apart from jealously guarding their own information functions, some

commentators feel ministers shoot the Tory PR effort in the foot in

other ways. While some, like Michael Heseltine, John Major and Kenneth

Clarke, use every opportunity to push home a political message, the

majority of ministers do not think in terms of PR and have ‘become like

civil servants’, as one observer puts it.



Despite such obstacles, Lewington, and his team, which includes former

Times lobby journalist and diarist, Sheila Gunn, have won plaudits - at

least from their own side. One Tory insider says: ‘Charles Lewington

understands the press, as do the team he has gathered around him.’



However, Labour is held to have the sharpest communications outfit,

with Mandelson still rated the best political marketing man in

Westminster. As a spin doctor Lewington, most frequently described as

‘smooth’, does not have the tough reputation of fellow former tabloid

journalist Campbell, whose aggressiveness in pursuit of the good Labour

angle is legendary. That said, Lewington is not averse to turning on the

screws: as he showed by complaining to the BBC about last week’s edition

of Panorama, focusing on Tory rifts over Europe.



Due to the traditional Tory loyalties of the UK press, one could argue

that the hard sell is not actually necessary. A Conservative press that

is often a grateful recipient of Tory ‘leaks’ and is not adverse to pro-

Government editorials may be best won with charm.



However, the Tories do seem less adept at approaching the left leaning

press, like the Independent and the Guardian. Journalists on ‘non-Tory’

papers complain of being ‘ignored’ by Central Office, of not having

calls returned and of getting less information than colleagues on

‘friendly’ publications.



One national broadsheet journalist said: ‘They obviously target specific

newspapers very carefully and, in doing so, I think they miss

opportunities. The Labour Party has a much clearer vision, in what they

want and what they are trying to achieve.’



The Tory PR machine has also proved less able than its Labour

contemporaries at encouraging senior members to put media relations

first. One regional journalist, at last week’s Tory conference, said

Douglas Hogg’s condemnation - faithfully recorded in a Central Office

press release - of ‘those editors and those journalists who have fed the

public on a diet of screaming headlines, alarmist lies and bogus

science’ felt like a ‘Sod you lot!’ assault on the press.



Such criticisms cannot overshadow the fact that the Tory PR machine is

undeniably better than in 1992 - and yet that year’s electoral victory

seems increasingly remote. Michael White, the Guardian’s political

editor, is one of many who suggest the solution could be out of the

hands of PR.



‘In 1992, things started quite badly for the Conservatives,’ he recalls.

‘In difficult circumstances, I would say to the people at Central

Office: ‘How are you going to get out this?’ They would say: ‘We’ve got

two things, Kinnock and tax’ and, as it turned out, they were largely

right. This time, it is much, much more difficult to imagine what they

would say.’



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