Gordon needs a new way of getting his message across

Brown: Risks becoming 'Labour's shortest-serving Prime Minister'
Brown: Risks becoming 'Labour's shortest-serving Prime Minister'

Prior to entering 10 Downing Street there was no more assiduous schmoozer of the Westminster press lobby than Gordon Brown. The invitations to football matches for political editors and regular drinks parties journalists in No 11 were widely known, though the invitations for female columnists to bring their children to play chez Brown's were less so.

Courting the media certainly smoothed his path to the Premiership and helped him avoid a leadership election (which looking back he would have benefited from greatly).

The last 12 months have shown that this attentiveness to the needs of the media have delivered little for him personally, with the notable exception of the Daily Mail (the fact that their political editor's blog gives the most accurate insights into a Labour prime minister's mind is one of the great curiosities of our time).

It is widely acknowledged that unless Brown begins to turn around Labour's fortunes by the time of the Labour party conference he will be facing the prospect of being Labour's shortest serving prime minister.

His team are already hard at work developing smart new policies to woo the public and tactical wheezes to push David Cameron off track. These plans will only work if Brown is able to find a new way of communicating with the public.

Much has been written about his style and manner. But little has been said about the vehicles and the forums which his government chooses to engage with the public.

The public have picked up on Westminster's current view of Brown and synthesized this with their view of all government activity: under siege, stressed, worn out, brittle and much worse. They say this because they still view Brown close up where they can pick at the open wounds of his premiership.

Now is the time for Brown to turn his back on his former friends in the fourth estate who have become some of his fiercest critics. Don't stop them doing their work, just don't help them do it.

Brown’s government needs to engage instead with the public through other, more direct and simpler means. His first port of call upon his return to London should be the appropriately named Hercules House in Waterloo. There he will find the HQ of the Central Office of Information. There he should be asking the ad men for their best ideas to project the policy priorities of work of the government and the role which the public can play in delivering them.

Brown should not be asking them for political campaigns (that would break the rules) but just clean, simple and effective public information campaigns which drive home social marketing messages.

There was a time when the greatest advertising professional cut their teeth on public information campaigns, from wartime posters through to the Green Cross Code man. These campaigns meant something to a generation and more importantly, influenced public opinion more powerfully than any press release or media interview.

Brown should seek to re-kindle this era, improving the professionalism of government advertising (and perhaps spending a little less on media relations).

Whitehall press offices would still have a role to play, but they need to fundamentally re-focus their energy, learning from Google and other customer focused businesses. They need to develop clear simple ways for the press to access to the information which they need - but cut back on the sort of media handling which has become common place across Westminster, but which delivers little to the government. A recent example is the will they won't they stories last week on stamp duty – which only led to further damage to the housing market and the government's reputation.

Inevitably there would be cost-savings with this approach which would be channelled into more traditional marketing.

Whitehall should obviously not be pumping out a series of party political campaigns. But Brown should be encouraging his ministers to seek to make a market for the policies which they are delivering through good, old fashioned advertising, material which seeks to explain and engage through simple clear messages.

Brown has recruited recently an able team of professional marketeers in Downing Street. They have a background in advertising, not PR; let's hope that they can educate their boss and his colleagues before it is too late.



Benjamin Wegg Prosser is a consultant director at TLG (The Ledbury Group)

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