The king of spin goes digital

Alastair Campbell has become a key part of Labour's online strategy. Here he tells Cathy Wallace why

New approach: Campbell
New approach: Campbell

In the past few weeks, a familiar presence has bec­ome apparent in the cyber­sphere.

What started off as a status update here and there is snowballing into a flurry of digital content. Welcome to the new world of Alastair Campbell. He is among us, Tweeting , blogging and vlogging, and for all we know, even poking too. If he knows how to poke, that is. ‘I don’t really understand Twittering and Tweeting and all the rest of it but I’m learning,’ he confesses to PRWeek.

Avoiding mud-slinging amid the speculation over Labour’s new media strategy, Campbell has already den­ied he is leading the party’s online fightback (PR Week, 28 January). But he admits when it comes to Labour’s forays online, out of all of the Blairites he and John Prescott are ‘the real drivers now’.

‘Hopefully through what we’re doing we will show lots of other people in the Labour Party you can reach people this way.’ But he adds both he and Prescott are being careful not to be drawn into mud-slinging.

‘One thing I have noticed with online deb­ate is how much isn’t debate, it’s abuse. John and I both have reputations for being upfront and saying what we think. But if someone comes online and says “there’s no difference between the parties”, I’m not going to say “you’re a complete idiot”. I will just point out the differences. That way, you can gain a bit of respect within the whole blogging community.’

A new site, Alastaircampbell.org, hosts biographical information, plugs for Campbell’s various books, a blog, video posts and a section for online feedback and debate. Add to that his Twitter feed and a Facebook site that can spark full-on deb­ates through a simple status update, and you have all the makings of a digital Brand Campbell.

‘Social media activity is hugely important,’ he says. ‘It’s a different way of interacting with people and radically different from command and control comms strategies.’

But he is quick to add he does not think social media can ever replace traditional communications. ‘Look at Barack Obama’s campaign. It was brilliant and he used online really well – but it was first and foremost a well-organised, strategic, disciplined campaign. It had modern elements, but a lot was old-fashioned. What you have to do is bring the two together.’

Fiercely competitive

Arguably Campbell’s first use of fully int­egrated traditional and digital media came only last month through his work for the Time to Change campaign, to end discrimination on the grounds of mental health.

Andrew Bloch, MD of Frank PR, which worked on the campaign, says: ‘His use of digital media helped to engage audiences. As a respected personality and someone who has suffered from mental illness, he was able to talk about the subject matter credibly and started conversations with key online forums.’

But Campbell did find himself appearing in the media in uncomfortable ways: ‘There was a full-page ad for the campaign in the Daily Mail. It made me vomit, but if I have allowed myself to be in the Daily Mail, people can at least support the campaign.’

And, reassuringly, he seems unable to banish his competitive and political streak – one Twitter update encouraged people to vote to end mental health discrimination. ‘The thing about a campaign like this is it’s not an election,’ he says. ‘There are no definitive results where someone wins.’ He sounds baffled by the concept.

The campaign has not escaped criticism. ‘A lot of people have said the money that’s gone on this could go on treatment,’ he says. ‘But a lot of people who suffer from mental ill-health say the stigma is almost worse than the condition.’

So has Campbell mollified towards the media? It seems so. Mention of a recent piece in The Daily Telegraph, baldly entitled ‘Alastair Campbell’s new blog is awful’, and roundly trashing his new website, fails to provoke one of his infamous anti-media rants.

‘I thought it made them look old-fashioned,’ he says. ‘All the technical stuff is a matter of taste, anyway. I chose the colours on the website because they are Burnley colours – and I’ve got people saying “what a stupid choice” and being critical as if it’s a deep dec­ision I’ve made.’

Campbell does not sound too bothered what The Daily Telegraph thinks of his online offering. At the end of the day, he says, ‘all of this is very, very new to me’.

Life after tony What Alastair did next

Since stepping down as Tony Blair’s director of communications and strategy in 2003, Campbell has been active on the public speaking circuit.

He has published two books – his memoir The Blair Years, in July 2007, which chronicles his time at Number 10, and a novel, All In The Mind, in October 2008, which follows a series of characters who all see the same psychiatrist. His second novel is due to be published later this year.

Campbell has filmed a documentary for the BBC entitled Cracking Up, which was aired to coincide with the release of All In The Mind.

He has recently been signed up to be a mentor on a BBC reality show The Speaker in which he, Earl Spencer, newscaster Kate Silverton and Dragon’s Den’s Deborah Meaden will search for Britain’s best young speaker. The announcement raised eyebrows, as Campbell is accused of having previously branded Spencer a ‘pillock’. However, Campbell told PRWeek he had ‘no memory’ of making such a comment.

Campbell is still active in Labour politics, and continues to advise the party informally. He was also a founder of the Go Fourth campaign aimed at getting Labour elected to a fourth term.

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