The Liberal Democrats needed to project a strong independent image at
their annual conference. Its small media relations team managed to beat
the odds to get the point across, says Keith Bill, managing director of
While the Liberal Democrats boast of scores of PR professionals who back
their Party, media relations people at Party headquarters are thin on
the ground. Which makes it difficult to mount an effective PR operation
especially when, at the Lib Dems’ Brighton conference, all the media
wanted to hear was whether Paddy and his Party were ready to fall into
Some Lib Dem spokesmen were happy to oblige. Lord Bill Rodgers declared
that the Lib Dems should ‘accept any invitation from Labour leader Tony
Blair to become ministers in his government’.
Alex Carlile MP could even see the Lib Dems and Labour merging into a
This, thought some, was getting out of control, and from the podium, and
more importantly in the bars, the press heard what was wrong with
Labour. They had let down the poor, let down Scotland, let down
A lot of this was getting across, and the Lib Dems team had reason to
feel pleased with itself. If his Party did enter into any relationship
with Labour, Paddy Ashdown said, it would be to give Labour ‘backbone’.
Now the line was ‘we can’t really trust them’ and the story was spun
from ear to ear, pier to pier.
But what of the floating Tory voters, weren’t the Lib Dems after them?
Emma Nicholson, the Tory turned Lib Dem MP, huffed and puffed and while
she brought the house down, she said little of substance.
But now the Lib Dems were seen to be telling the electorate that neither
of the two main parties were to be trusted. And that was what the Lib
Dem spinners wanted.
With the media still clamouring for the Lib Dems to bestow their
blessing on Tony or John, the media team in Brighton faced a tricky
problem. How to ensure the bold policies they were announcing that week
made the media and were heeded by the electorate.
They made it. Mostly in the heavies, true, but also in the regional
press and on regional radio. The Lib Dem team did well. Positive
policies gained visibility, the Party was positioned as independent yet
still left of centre, a strong partner to bolster Tony Blair’s natural
instincts. But they needed TV. That was down to Paddy. He made a rousing
speech. It’s anecdotal, but he did well. And so did his media team.