Far from the buzz in the lead up to the 1997 election, as an
election date is finally confirmed, there seems to only be the level of
excitement as you might expect if a minor cabinet reshuffle was coming
up. But then, 1997 was a little special whatever your political stance.
For the first time in over a decade, the Conservative Government had
some serious opposition, and PA firms were busy advising clients on a
'what if' scenario for both main parties.
Four years on, a second Labour term is almost a foregone conclusion.
Staff in many consultancies will again be vacating their desks to assist
party campaigners in message development, media relations and business
links, during the campaign.
However, the PA industry won't stand still during the election - not
least because the process of devolution has created a host of political
institutions for whom it is business as usual. Many of the leading
players are planning to pull something special out of the bag for
clients, however, even if there will be little information that won't be
available from the mainstream media.
PPS director Richard Mollett says all the advice to clients is that
Labour will win with a healthy majority, but there will still be new
personalities to meet. 'There will be a reshuffle and new people at all
levels of the ministerial ladder. There may not be the dramatic shift of
1997, but the whole landscape of parliament will change. If it is
required from clients we will do an election service, and try to add
value to what they are already getting from other sources about what
will be important come the new term.'
Among the areas Mollett believes will be of interest to clients this
time round are the euro, and what will happens to the Tories -
particularly William Hague. With a widely-expected change in senior
party personnel, PA firms will have a job on their hands just keeping
up. PPS is also preparing pre-election briefings to keep clients up to
date, covering information such as swing seats, and major policy
AS Biss chairman Adele Biss agrees much of the interest for clients is
in personnel changes: 'We're busy because of the possibility of a
substantial reshuffle. So far, the senior posts in this Government have
been relatively stable, so it's very important to keep an eye on who's
who. There are 70-plus MPs standing down so we need to prepare clients
on marginal seats, as well as having a good look at the manifestos, and
reappraising policy priorities.'
Biss believes it is possible to be of value to clients in the run-up to
an election, despite the halt to lobbying, by giving insight and
analysis of policy commitments, and keeping an ear to the ground. 'It's
about trying to elicit where people stand on the policies that matter,
and getting policy submissions and points of view in quickly.'
Hill & Knowlton is having fun with its new online Swingometer (at
www.netcoms.com/election). The Election 2001 Predictor allows users to
see the effect on the House of Commons of a country-wide swing from one
party to another, an overall change in voting for each party, and
predicted winning (and losing) candidates for each seat.
Managing director of the public and corporate affairs practice Andrew
Pharoah says the site has had hits from the House of Commons, The
Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, among others, and during the election
campaign itself the site will also feature election news.
Pharoah says it's not easy to go beyond the coverage in the nationals:
'In business terms, government changes are good news for the PA
industry, but what will add value this time is cutting through the pages
and pages of news, and telling clients the things they really need to
know for their company.'
De Havilland Public Affairs is also trying to do something new, by
providing a web newsfeed for the NUT election website, and making its
tracking service available publicly. It will track the issues dominating
the agenda during the campaign to produce a weekly league table of the
The result of the election may appear to be a foregone conclusion, but
that's not to say the campaign will lack interest and surprises. GPC MD
Kevin Bell's advice to clients is to be prepared for the unexpected:
'There's always something that gets blown out of control - we've already
had the race issue - and we have to be prepared for whoever makes the
first real gaffe.'
Bell also points out that life goes on after election day, and there is
plenty of work to be done with clients on what the issues will be after
The national press may be obsessed with who's going where, but the Prime
Minister will also be thinking about the big issues, like a euro
referendum, and securing a third term - how he can really transform the
'We need to be one step ahead on briefing on these big issues,' says
Foresight Communications MD Mark Adams was Number 10's private secretary
for parliamentary affairs during the drama of the last election, so he's
finding the run-up to this one even duller than most.
Adams is also preparing for the election by steering clients on the
likely shape of a second Labour term. As a former senior civil servant,
he is also advising clients on likely changes in the machinery of
government, such as John Prescott's likely move to the Cabinet Office,
the enhanced role of the Cabinet Office in relation to the Treasury, and
the inevitable shake-up of MAFF into a rural affairs department.
'We're advising clients on implications of these changes for them,
rather than running a classic public affairs operation during the
election - there are enough good sources of briefings out there
already,' says Adams.
Everyone in the industry is agreed that the delay to the election date
has made no real difference to the work they are doing, although there
is something of a feeling of limbo. Now is hardly a good time to launch
a major parliamentary contact programme or to organise events, since it
is to be dissolved by the Queen early next week.
All of which may lead to the conclusion that there's not really much for
PA firms to do at the moment, but that's assuming their clients are only
interested in the central UK government. As Biss points out: 'The GLA
and Brussels are increasingly important, and Whitehall and local
authorities are still very active.'
It is a mark of how public affairs has changed that the industry no
longer stops when Westminster does.
PRWEEK PUNDITS COMMENT
Charles Lewington ... former Tory director of communications
'Is it something of a myth that civil servants put their feet up during
an election campaign. The Whitehall machine may idle - but it doesn't
grind to a halt. One of my clients is gearing up for a major piece of
legislation in the first Queen's Speech, if New Labour is
I happen to know the bill drafting will continue during the
My advice is that this period can be a good time to get alongside senior
officials because they've got more spare time in their diary. Just don't
expect any decisions.
'In April 1997, a large number of PAand PR consultants worked in party
war rooms - including 15 at Conservative Central Office. I sense that
the secondee programme is smaller this time around - aside from the
David Hills of this world. One report has it that Millbank has only
recruited three or four 'externals'.
'With the manifesto process pretty much at a close, agencies should be
advising clients to look beyond election day. A second Blair government
is unlikely to be as radical as Peter Hain would wish or as dramatic as
Margaret Thatcher's second term. But it is bound to be less risk
'The Government is already gearing up to take on more vested interests -
particularly professional ones - and will no doubt lay more tax and
administrative burdens at the doors of business.
'It looks as if there will be changes at the top of three or four major
departments of state. That's a lot of ministers and advisers to get
alongside before we even take stock of the new intake of MPs.'
Steve Morgan ... former Al Gore campaigner
'When this edition of PRWeek hits the streets I will be in the middle of
a five-day trip to Washington DC to brief business leaders from North
America and Canada on how a re-elected Labour Government will affect
their interests in the UK. Attendance for these briefings has escalated
in the last few weeks as, on both sides of the Atlantic, business people
are becoming increasingly convinced of a sizeable Labour victory.
'Public affairs agencies will be busy during the election. Monitoring
all five main political parties for policy announcements, or changes,
that could impact our clients is a vital part of the service we all
We'll also be closely watching what happens to MPs in the jurisdiction
of the devolved administrations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland
to see how any political change of electoral mood might affect future
policy there. That said, post-election is when we'll be most in
'A second term Labour Government is going to keep us busy. A second
re-election will depend on Labour delivering a wide range of radical
reforms in public services, health, communications and environmental
Corporations which have never been touched by PA or public policy issues
will find themselves drawn into the legislative and parliamentary
The need for them to understand those processes and the outcomes will
not just increase the demand for PA, it will also require us to be ready
with effective ways of providing our services'.
Joy Johnson is on holiday.
Jeremy Browne ... former Lib Dem director of press and broadcasting
'Great friendships are forged in the heat of an election battle.
Just as the pressure of wars tends to hasten the advance of technology,
the pressure of campaigns tends to speed the development of
This intensity leaves an indelible mark on the politically active and
allows those in public affairs to cram a year's networking into two or
'The heightened sense of political awareness during campaigns provides
an ideal opportunity to market a public affairs offering. Many agencies
will organise programmes to explain the effect of political changes on
the commercial world.
'The aftermath of the election, with new faces and new policies, will
also provide an on-going demand for specialist public affairs
Watch out for a raft of post-election speculation on the new cabinet and
the contents of the Queen's Speech.
'The communications techniques of the political parties are forever
'Like a Grand Prix team entering a new season after a winter of
technological innovations, the election is when cutting edge campaigning
ideas are revealed.
'Drawing on their own experiences and the best from both American
elections and the private sector, the party campaigns are a great
opportunity for agencies to gain new communications ideas.'