Newsmaker: Pink paper's Emma Gilpin-Jacobs joins the yellow team

They say being stuck in the middle is never an enviable position. Emma Gilpin-Jacobs, set to join Britain's centre party as it gears up for the 2015 general election, clearly disagrees.

Emma Gilpin-Jacobs
Emma Gilpin-Jacobs

It was announced this week that the respected former global comms director for the FT will become the Liberal Democrats’ director of comms on 2 December. 

Her corporate experience and business links will add credibility in an area of weakness for the party, but her lack of experience in the corridors of Westminster makes it a notable hire. 

She is charged with turning the vision of director of strategy Ryan Coetzee into a plan of action and communicating that both outside of government and across the party. 

Her lack of political experience may raise some eyebrows, but Bell Pottinger Public Affairs MD Stephen Lotinga, who was involved in the recruitment process, says the party was very clear it wanted someone from the outside with a record of delivering: "She brings significant external experience and will be a fresh breath of air."

Alien world?

People shifting from the corporate to the political world have met with varying degrees of success, but Diageo corporate affairs director Ian Wright says any talk of a divide between the different disciplines is overplayed.

"The suggestion that politics is somehow an alien world is a bit far-fetched," says Wright, who has advised party leaders Paddy Ashdown, Ming Campbell and Nick Clegg while working in the corporate sector.

"There’s a danger that some people in politics believe it’s such a rarefied world that they don’t understand there’s a big world out there and talented people with a lot to add. It will be good for Nick to have someone with a different perspective to advise him."

The bigger challenge is balancing how the Liberal Democrats remain an active partner in the coalition Government with building the party’s profile and a success story that differs from the Conservatives.

"It’s the first time in modern life that the third party is going into an election defending its record in government. The challenge is how it manages to get the credit for its achievements," says Wright.

For example, there is concern that the Liberal Democrats have failed to properly communicate one of their big achievements – the cut in income tax – and that this will be claimed by the Conservatives.

Arresting decline

There’s no doubt that Gilpin-Jacobs is a highly respected and effective operator. Within three months of joining the FT as comms director in 2006, she had been promoted to the board and her role was expanded to a global role. The FT’s CEO John Ridding wrote a glowing email about her to senior management when she stepped down earlier this year.

When she won the CIPR/Institute of Directors PR director of the year in May, the judges praised her achievement of  "turning around a high profile brand that was in decline."

That could be an apt description for the Liberal Democrats, whose party membership dropped nearly 25 per cent between 2011 and 2012, according to documents filed with the Electoral Commission. Neither do the latest polls make enjoyable reading for the party. 

The position itself will not be easy. "She won’t have a focused team of 14 like she had at the FT and she’s got to get around 60 MPs to say the same thing. Her job is to deliver 40 seats and that’s a real challenge," says Lotinga.

Or as one person responded to the news on Twitter, a "suicide mission".

If she is nervous about the role, Gilpin-Jacobs certainly doesn’t show it: "I have more than 20 years of experience of complex communications in fast-changing and complex environments. They might not have been political with a big P, but they required judgement, thoughtfulness and strategic planning." 

The one thing she worried about when she left the FT was if she could find another job that would be equally challenging. 

That now seems the least of her concerns. 

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