Political PR: PR battle for votes hots up north of the border - With a more proportional electoral system likely to favour smaller parties, the main players in Scottish politics are upping their PR campaigns in a bid to win over the public

With less than a month to go before Scotland’s voters go to the polls, the PR battle between the four main parties vying for seats in the Holyrood parliament is hotting up.

With less than a month to go before Scotland’s voters go to the

polls, the PR battle between the four main parties vying for seats in

the Holyrood parliament is hotting up.

The first stage in that battle saw all four parties bolstering their

press teams. Harrison Cowley account manager Lindsay Linton, for

example, has been seconded to promote Liberal Democrat leader Jim

Wallace’s tour of Scotland (PR Week, 9 April).

Last week and this week, the parties all staged high profile launches of

their respective manifestoes. With all policy cards now on the table,

the spin doctors have ammunition to attack their competitors.

The biggest players in the fight for the 129 seats in the new parliament

are Labour and the Scottish National Party. Opinion polls give Labour

between 40 and 45 per cent of the vote, with the SNP close behind with

30 to 35 per cent.

Both parties’ strategies consist largely of attacking the other’s


While the SNP emphasises its Scottishness with the ’London Labour’

soundbite, Labour counters with its own slogan: ’divorce is an expensive

business’, referring to the SNP’s raison d’etre - independence.

Much has been made in the Scottish press of Labour’s spin operation -

including reports last December that its communications director

Lorraine Davidson was on the point of quitting. Stung by this type of

attack, the party is now excessively secretive of the size and content

of its outfit.

While Davidson, a former TV journalist, ordinarily heads the press

operation - now numbering about ten staff - she is currently being

helped by David Whitton, Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar’s former

special adviser who shed the shackles of the civil service a few weeks

ago to become the leader’s campaign media co-ordinator.

The SNP’s 12-strong team is led by communications director Kevin


Pringle is SNP born and bred, having joined the party as a researcher

fresh from college ten years ago. The SNP is the only party to combine

PR for the party and the leader in one role. But, Pringle says: ’Alex

Salmond does his own PR. He’s so well-known and the media generally like


In true Mandelson style, Scottish Labour’s PR is slick. ’Our media

centre is on the ninth floor of an office with stunning views,’ says


’When we launched our manifesto, we had our five election pledges marked

out on a ’Scottish New Labour’ backdrop down one wall. There was a

raised dais for cameras and all the journalists had a seat,’ he glows.

He contrasts this with what he calls the relatively inaccessible

’L-shaped room’ the SNP chose for its launch.

The Liberal Democrats are careful to position themselves away from this

two-way sniping. As the third party, it is likely to hold the balance of

power under the part-proportional Scottish electoral system, which is

not expected to deliver an overall majority.

Although anti-independence, the party is not pushing this line as part

of its campaign, well aware that it could end up sharing power with the

SNP. The party is instead selling itself as ’raising the standard’ - of

the debate, as well as the Scottish flag.

Denis Robertson Sullivan, managing director of PS Communication

Consultants and part-time LibDem campaign strategist, admits: ’We have

to be careful not be too triumphalist. There’s been a sustained

onslaught by both Labour and the Conservatives on the SNP. We are

recognised as being likely to hold the balance of power. The challenge

for us is to not be too boring.’

His attempt to meet this challenge involves ’creativity’, rather than

backbiting, grabbing headlines with images like last week’s photo

opportunity of Wallace on his ’battle bus’ crossing the water between

the mainland and Argyll.

The LibDems have yet to convince the Scottish electorate of Wallace’s

credibility as a leader. His press secretary Peter Curtis, a former BT

media relations man, tacitly admits this. ’The Scottish campaign is

evolving into a presidential style,’ he says. ’Jim’s been around a long

time and when people discover him, they love him.’

If Wallace’s recognition value is lower than Dewar’s or Salmond’s,

Scottish Conservative leader David McLetchie is at the bottom of the

pile. The party’s well-documented failure to win any Scottish seats in

the last general election means McLetchie is not even an MP.

The Tories’ press operation is also the smallest, with only three

full-time staff. Of the three, former Scottish Enterprise PR chief Gerry

O’Brien, who serves as McLetchie’s press secretary, is based in Glasgow,

while the two press officers are in Edinburgh. Just to add to the

crossed lines, O’Brien is widely rumoured to be funded not by the party

but by Tory donor and businessman Irvine Laidlaw.

Still, this does not seem to stop the Conservatives from lashing out:

their poster featuring Salmond as a Teletubby ’living in Scot la-la

land’ was widely reported when it launched last week.

The Conservatives are not exerting themselves in vain. As Scottish

Conservative press officer Mark Morley says: ’We have no parliamentary

profile in Scotland, but the proportional system means we are guaranteed

to get members in the Scottish Parliament.’ Along similar lines to the

SNP, one of the Conservatives’ main arguments for wresting power from

Scottish Labour is that it is run from Millbank.

With the SNP and the Tories chipping away at its reputation and the

prospect of having to powershare with the Liberal Democrats at Holyrood,

Labour has the most to lose in this PR battle.

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