Corbyn's comms revolution: can ex-BBC exec and Blair-era press officer help Labour leader up his game?

Jeremy Corbyn's appointment of a former BBC executive and a comms pro who served in Tony Blair's Downing Street are seen as acknowledgment of the need to win over the centre ground.

Last week it was revealed that Carl Shoben had joined the Labour leader's office as director of strategy, following the arrival at the end of last month of Anjula Singh as director of comms.

Singh was deputy head of production operations at BBC News until 2016, and reportedly the most senior Asian woman at the corporation. She does not appear to have extensive experience in comms.

Shoben was a media officer for the party and then special adviser to Blair as PM, but has spent the past 15 years working mostly in NHS comms roles, as well as a seven-month stint working for FTI Consulting to May 2014. Since news of his return to Labour emerged, many journalists on Twitter have circulated an anecdote about an unfortunate leak he suffered in 2001.

The comms and strategy role have been split - for six months during last year's general election, the post of deputy director of strategy and comms was held by Steve Howell, the founder of comms agency Freshwater.

Howell, who has recently published Game Changer, a book about Labour’s 2017 election campaign, told PRWeek that Singh and Shoben's hires "add to an already very talented communications team under Seumas Milne, including Sian Jones, Labour’s press office head, and James Schneider, Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesperson... they follow a reorganisation of Labour comms following the general election last year in which my role as deputy to Seumas was split to separate strategy from communications management".

Of Shoben, Howell said: "In the strategy role, Carl Shoben’s job will be to analyse the concerns of the key groups we need to win to secure a majority. His Blair-era background has raised a few eyebrows, but why shouldn’t people’s views change in the light of experience?"

He went on to say: "On the comms side, Anjula Singh’s broadcast background will be a real asset. Alongside social media, television was crucial for us in the last election. People responded well to Jeremy when he had a chance to outline his views in longer interviews and debates. It looks like Labour is building a formidable comms operation ready for the next election and moving into Downing Street."

PRWeek asked four politically minded comms pros for their views:

Mainstream motive

Iain Anderson, executive chairman of Cicero Group, commented: "The Corbyn election campaign surprised everyone, but the local election results have posed questions about whether or not he can reach middle Britain. These new appointments recognise the need to broaden appeal to a more mainstream audience."

Challenging disconnect

Jo-ann Robertson, CEO of Ketchum London and a former Labour activist, said of the challenge ahead for Singh and Shoben: "The challenge for anyone joining the Labour team right now is the disconnect between the leadership, the parliamentary Labour party and the membership. Joining an organisation where there isn't alignment on strategy means that it is incredibly difficult to communicate in a consistent and engaging way. Short-term success will be dictated by the ability to tell stories that mitigate and/or dilute the negative narrative that exists about anti-semitism, unity, and the ability to win an election.

"Given where the Government's reputation and priorities are right now, it should never have been easier for the opposition to win, but don't underestimate the ability of Corbyn and his gang to shoot themselves in the foot."

Authenticity and strategy

Tim Focas, a director at both the think tank Parliament Street and the PR agency Aspectus, said: "Balancing the authenticity of Corbyn’s personality with a more strategic Blairite election-winning mentality is the big challenge facing the new Labour hires.

"Herein lies the contradiction. Corbyn unspun may have been able to hoover up younger voters through the power of social media. However, it is questionable whether his new team can marry this approach with the more traditional methods of communication that tend resonate with middle England voters. It is these voters that are likely to be the difference between a Labour winning and losing come the next election."

Long overdue hires

Simon Petar, associate director of the agency iNHouse, said: "Both hires are long overdue. When the posts were first floated it was believed this would signal the Labour party were readying themselves for the final push to power after the momentum of a positive set of local election results. This clearly isn’t the case anymore, so they’ll have their work cut out."

"The hire of Carl Shoben is particularly interesting given his background in PR-ing the centre ground of Labour politics in years gone by. He probably hopes he has been forgiven by now for his infamous 2001 'who's who?' note on lobby print journalists."

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