CAMPAIGNS: JUDGE AND JURY; Lib Dems get through to the media with new tough image

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 Union Communications

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

Union Communications



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

Labour’s embrace.



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

single party.



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

pensioners.



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.



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