Corbyn still has comms work to do despite PR and policy hires, say public affairs pros

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is still facing questions over whether his PR strategy is robust enough, despite the confirmation of a new interim spokesman and a head of policy and rebuttal.

Jeremy Corbyn: At an anti-war event in London last year (credit: Garry Knight on flickr)
Jeremy Corbyn: At an anti-war event in London last year (credit: Garry Knight on flickr)

Yesterday, PRWeek features editor Alex Benady wrotes that Corbyn had become "a walking talking billboard for the PR industry" due to shortcomings of his PR strategy since being elected leader, while a survey of PRWeek readers said they did not have confidence in Corbyn's comms skills.

It has now been widely reported that Kevin Slocombe, formerly of the Communication Workers Union, has been made head of comms for Corbyn - although PRWeek can confirm that he is in fact interim spokesman to the leader. Meanwhile, Neale Coleman - the only adviser to former Labour Mayor of London Ken Livingstone who was kept on when Conservative incumbent Boris Johnson took the job - has been made head of policy and rebuttal.

Slocombe, who deleted his Twitter account earlier this week, left the CWU in June after nearly a decade in post.

Sean Kemp, an associate director at public affairs firm Open Road, who formerly worked for the Lib Dems, said Slocombe faced having to get used to a very different job in his new role.

"That will be interesting - some of the rules are the same but dealing with the lobby on a daily basis is a completely different set of demands," Kemp said

He added: "The thing they really need to do is sort out their press office."

PRWeek was unable to confirm reports of the new appointments with the Labour press office this morning, with a voicemail message saying no press staff were available. A mobile number for "urgent" press queries was given, but was not answered when PRWeek called. Journalists were asked to send a text message, which was not responded to at the time of publication.

Kemp said Labour's press office seemed understaffed and said he was confused as to why Corbyn had been on TV so little given the importance many other leading politicians give to broadcast interviews. "That is worrying from a PR point of view and I’m not sure how long that will last," he said.

Kemp said Coleman seemed a good appointment. "He’s already in a big important job, he’s a smart guy, it seems like a perfectly sensible appointment."

John Lehal, who had been involved in the campaign of Corbyn's leadership rival Andy Burnham, suggested Corbyn's team still needed further bolstering, saying: "He needs a strategic communicator who can command the respect of the party, the shadow cabinet, and the leader, and someone who has mainstream political experience to foresee the pitfalls. Based on events of the first week, Corbyn needs to make that appointment sooner rather than later."

Liam O’Keefe, a senior director at FTI Consulting, went further and referred to Slocombe as "unpredictable and a potential ticking time bomb".

However, he did praise the appointment of Coleman, saying: "His relationship with Boris Johnson may lead issue based alliances with rebel Tory backbenchers that threaten the government’s slim majority. Slocombe is more unpredictable and a potential ticking time bomb."

Ralph Jackson, a director at Lansons, said he preferred to wait and see how Slocombe worked out, but noted that previous Labour leaders had not appointed their top comms people immediately after being made leader.

"Ed Miliband took some time before he appointed Tom Baldwin, Blair had people he brought in before Alistair Campbell, so there can be a bit of test and learn, but as for whether Slocombe is the right calibre of person, only time well tell," he said.

Meanwhile, there has been no confirmation about whether other figures who worked on Corbyn’s campaign were continuing to assist with his press work.

This includes Corbyn’s head of press Carmel Nolan, the former radio journalist from Liverpool who like Crobyn is closely associated with the Stop the War Coalition; head of strategy Kat Fletcher, the former National Union of Students president; and Cat Smith, the newly elected Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood who reportedly assisted Corbyn in his communications ahead of the Labour leadership vote.

The low profile contingent was described as "not exactly the dream team" by one public affairs consultant, who preferred not to be named. The consultant said that, Simon Fletcher aside, they lacked experience.

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