Does Corbyn need to buck up his media and comms strategy?

After being widely praised for his campaign strategy during the party's leadership contest, new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is now facing questions over his media strategy.

Lost for words: Corbyn has come under fire for not singing the national anthem (Credit: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images)
Lost for words: Corbyn has come under fire for not singing the national anthem (Credit: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images)

In the few days since his landslide election win, Corbyn has attracted negative press for not singing the national anthem at a Battle of Britain commemoration service yesterday, for not having enough women in top jobs in his Shadow Cabinet, his controversial choice of Shadow Chancellor, for not speaking to reporters, and for pulling out of an appearance on BBC's The Andrew Marr Show.

He has also had the media look back to historic comments including his declaration that he would prefer the UK to be a republic, expressions of sympathy for certain causes and individuals, and scrutinise the politicians who have referred to him as a friend or congratulated him on his victory.

While Corbyn has fought back at some of this criticism, including his refusal to sing the national anthem, good news has been less forthcoming. This is in contrast to his bid for leadership, which despite fierce opposition, was praised by PRWeek contributors as a "smart PR campaign" and for its use of social media.

In an article on the website of The Guardian yesterday, Tom Clark writes: "If his first 48 hours at the helm of the Labour party have demonstrated one thing, it is that Jeremy Corbyn badly needs a spin doctor. Finsbury director."

He gives what he calls a "non-exhaustive list" of four PR mistakes made by Corbyn - the gender balance of his Cabinet appointments, his choice of Shadow Chancellor, his stance on Europe and his relationship with the parliamentary Labour party.

Dylan Sharpe, head of PR for The Sun newspaper - who had written in praise of Corbyn's "smart PR campaign" for PRWeek, said: "Corbyn's meteoric rise has been in large part down to his reputation as unvarnished, unspun and honest - which is, of course, itself a PR trick. But once in office and having to deal with the pressures of compromise and competing demands, being honest and unspun is more difficult and hence silly mistakes like having a journalist overhear your Cabinet discussions and not singing the national anthem are made."

He said that Corbyn could benefit from appointing "a smart head of press" who would be able to advise him. "Jeremy may think he looks independent and principled keeping schtum when hacks quiz him in the street or not talking to The Sun, but instead he looks shifty and unwilling," he said.

Khevyn Limbajee, a senior consultant at Cavendish Communications and former TV producer and Labour press officer, said he understood Corbyn did not yet have a full media team in place. "He needs to, but he will be able to build that up in time."

"If he doesn't have firm media support, he will get caught our and exploited because he's got so many enemies in the press," Limbajee said.

Dominic Church, managing director of public affairs agency Westminster Advisers, said it was clear Labour needed to rethink its PR. "I think definitely they need to get more organised in terms of their comms," he said, but went on to say that the problems in the party "run deeper" than PR, pointing to the lack of unity in its response to the Government's welfare bill.

Church said he thought Corbyn's attempt to have a different relationship with the media - for instance by not answering reporters questions or pulling out of TV appearances - and instead speak more directly to voters would not be fruitful.

"His strategy to circumvent the media and talk to voters at large directly is set to backfire, as it is only likely to be presented by the media as part of this narrative of Corbyn’s lack of ability to be a genuine leader of the Labour Party," he said.

That said, it seems likely to galvanise his support, according to Jared Shurin, a director at the agency Kindred, who said: "The now-routine flogging Corbyn’s getting in the national press may wind up backfiring, especially amongst Corbyn’s followers. Corbyn’s followers have always been more trusting of social media over traditional media, and this will only serve to galvanise them further."

Corbyn has, however, attracted some sympathy from the media - although this has often been split according to the traditional left-right media divide.

Later today, Corbyn faces perhaps his biggest test so far as Labour leader, when he becomes the party's fifth leader to stand opposite David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions in Parliament at lunchtime. There has been speculation that his so-called new-type of politics could make for change in the weekly Westminster fixture.

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