News Analysis: Party PROs set for doorstep battle

As the main political parties prepare for this spring's expected general election, Tom Williams looks at how a localised approach will be crucial to the outcome and identifies the structures and people behind the campaigns.

The official election starting gun might not have been fired but the UK's three main parties' campaigns to attract votes have already moved off the blocks, with polling day widely tipped to be 5 May.

But while the parties announce their broad economic policies nationally, a large part of this election, which will be decided by marginal seats, is likely to be fought in the regional media.

Last year the Conservatives, whose campaign is directed by Lynton Crosby, a former election strategist to Australian PM John Howard (see box), set up its first regional press office.

And only last month Labour's election co-ordinator Alan Milburn promised a 'less national and more local' campaign. He said Labour would abandon daily press conferences and its 'battle bus' in favour of election phone-ins with Tony Blair and other senior ministers at radio stations across the country.

Going local

'Press efforts will concentrate on regional and local media so you will see local journalists getting a lot more scoops through briefings from ministers and their PROs,' says Good Relations director James O'Keefe, who worked on Labour's 1997 election campaign.

For Labour, endangered by voter anger at the Iraq war and fatigue at the Blair/Brown feud, local campaigning also lends itself to bread and butter issues. Selected interviews with a local journalist concerned with a local hospital will also, in theory, be less perilous for the governing party. Better that than a daily locking of horns with the Westminster press pack, which is likelier to pursue personality issues and ministerial rivalries.

Liberal Democrat head of press Mark Littlewood will report to the party's new general election comms director Sandy Walkington when he joins next month. Littlewood says the party will use its regional media co-ordinators in each of the TV regions to help it get leader Charles Kennedy out to meet 'real people'. This may sound like traditional baby-kissing stuff, but while broadcast and national media will always be important because they draw bigger audiences, local media are more trusted, say political PROs.

For the Tories too, the national media scene could be more perilous with some speculation that party co-chairman Liam Fox and shadow home secretary David Davis could use the campaign to jockey for position in anticipation of a leadership contest should the Tories lose badly under Michael Howard.

'The Conservatives need a very tight structure, and a small camp of professionals for this election,' says Tory supporter and Fleishman-Hillard UK managing director Kevin Bell.

Littlewood meanwhile says the Lib Dems will position their party as providing a genuinely opposing view to the two big parties, in order to maximise media exposure and ensure its spokespeople 'have a fair crack of the whip'.

'It is going to be very difficult for broadcasters to get a different line that is clearly defined,' Littlewood says. 'The media have realised that they have to take us seriously.'

Whether the general election takes place in May or later in the year, the local tilt in the parties' PR tactics makes one thing certain: this general election will be fought much closer to voters' doorsteps.

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