Reputation check: 'PM in waiting' on charm offensive

In the year Gordon Brown is likely to become PM, PRWeek finds hard evidence that he must work on his image.

In the court of Gordon Brown, an image makeover is being hatched. The Chancellor is busy preparing for his long-awaited move from Number 11 to Number 10 and is starting to open up to the British public.

Insiders speak of a Brown who, with his burning ambition close to being realised, is starting to look ‘more relaxed and increasingly prime ministerial’.

But plenty of work still needs to be done. Research commissioned by PRWeek in the second week of this year has revealed missing pieces in the jigsaw of a Brown premiership.

Just under 60 per cent of the 1,130 people surveyed by Tickbox are unconvinced Brown will be able to step out from Tony Blair’s shadow and put his stamp on the Labour Party.

The research also found that a Cameron-led Tory party could gain ten per cent more votes than a Brown-led Labour party if an election was called this year.

But lobbyists believe Brown and his advisers can turn this around.

‘There is a misperception that Brown doesn’t care about image,’ says Jon McLeod, UK chairman of Weber Shandwick’s PA practice. ‘He has always been an effective image builder when needed. Now you will see a Brown who addresses the public.’

Jim Dickson, director at Four Communications’ PA practice, agrees Brown has the track record to build popularity. ‘In the 1980s, Brown spoke on a range of subjects in a charismatic way,’ he says.

‘He has been hard-headed and pragmatic at the Treasury, but is starting to return to the way he was.’

PRWeek asked a leading political journalist and a public affairs expert for their analysis of Brown’s public image (see below).

Analysis 1: the journalist’s view

Benedict Brogan (pictured), political editor of the Daily Mail
: ‘Iron. Dour. Brooding. The adjectives commonly used to describe the Chancellor have not changed in a decade. None are flattering, and coupled with Tony Blair’s recent phrase, “the big clunking fist”, the image is of a relentless, grim workaholic who reads the tax code for pleasure when he isn’t plotting to get rid of the PM. He is the image-maker’s nightmare.

‘Friends and admirers have for months been trying to soften the Brown edges. The red ties have been replaced by varied pastels. He smiles, and speaks more easily of his young family. He’s even revealed an improbable passion for the Arctic Monkeys. But the polls show that voters prefer the Tories under David Cameron to Labour under Gordon Brown, and by a big margin. For all his intellectual power, and strategic mastery, Brown lacks the Blair magic that connects instinctively with the voters.

‘Brown cannot match Blair’s ability to empathise with Middle England, yet he needs to if he is to win an election. Which is why he is under such pressure to overhaul his image.’

Analysis 2: the PR professional’s view

Jon Mendelsohn, managing director of FD-LLM: ‘For a man who has been a key member of the Government for the past decade, Gordon Brown is both familiar and yet strangely unknown. The challenge for him is how to re-invent a government after ten years in office.

‘While there are no successful precedents, the current government’s fin de siècle image in the eyes of the electorate presents an opportunity.

‘Brown scores strongly among “2005 switchers”, and with Blair’s prolific electoral Midas touch no longer potent, Brown looks uniquely positioned to win an election. Furthermore, Cameron’s success, while real, has been limited.

‘In the next six months, Brown needs to create the political momentum and electoral bounce he will require as PM by revealing more of his philosophy and politics through speeches, interviews and the Budget. He will also need to stay out of trouble and, crucially, will need to show that there is more to Brown than just being good at economics.’

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