Quite frankly, there comes a point where public perception is so entrenched against an individual or organisation that absolutely nothing will work. Witness Heather Mills, BAA or Network Rail. As former Director of Communications for the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB), we were fighting such a losing battle against the assembled ranks of the media, politicians and the public who thought it was morally repugnant and plain wrong for the ECB to be sending the England team to play a match in Zimbabwe during the 2003 Cricket World Cup. That was the perception and nothing short of mass bribery would have altered it.
In many ways, Gordon Brown has also reached that same point of ‘perception no return’.
The tide of public opinion is now so trenchant against Gordon Brown that it has even been suggested by credible Labour Party sources that Brown should ‘by-pass’ the media and communicate directly with the public. A sign of sheer desperation and arrant nonsense. If the product is fundamentally broken and message flawed – no amount of PR, ‘spin’ or ‘message massaging’ will rectify it.
Gordon Brown may well be a decent and intelligent man, but so are many other people who are rejected for top jobs because of failings in other areas of ‘core competencies’ as the HR jargon goes. It is obvious to the British public - if not to some deluded or personal agenda-driven elements within the Labour Party - that Mr Brown is just not suited to the job. This is the public perception and this is more important than whatever the reality actually is. One thing is clear though: Gordon Brown is not a natural communicator and was never likely to chime well with floating voters. In fact, he sounds wooden and uninspiring, fails to emotionally connect with many voters and gives the impression of being a ditherer – a label the Conservatives have successfully lumbered him with.
In today’s television and internet age, he lacks probably the most important ‘core competency’ that a national political party leader needs: to convey a seemingly sincere, confident and commanding persona. Gordon Brown does not do that and is unlikely ever to do so. It’s not his fault - we all have our own shortcomings. He may have been a very able ‘No 2’, but as business wisdom would have it, everyone is promoted one level beyond their inherent level of competency. That seems so evident in Mr Brown’s case. Even if it’s not true, the public think it is. The Labour Government will continue to wither on the vine - even if their next leadership generation is less than a vintage crop - until they replace him. While Labour vacillates, partial political paralysis sets in as Westminster and Whitehall hedge their bets and wait for clear direction.
No way to run a country, but that’s the way it sadly is.
John Read is Managing Director of International Insights, a corporate communications and political consultancy and former Director of Communications for the England cricket team.