At the last general election, the Conservatives could bank on the
electorate’s fear of the Opposition to ensure victory. Its PR machine
has improved but will PR alone be enough?
As last week’s Tory conference ended, the Party’s PR team could be
forgiven for feeling smug. What began with headlines about sleaze and
high-profile defections ended with images of a buoyant Prime Minister
and - although the rumblings over Europe continued - at least a show of
The transformation mirrored a revolution in the fortunes of the Tory PR
machine itself. Eleven months ago, communications director Hugh Colver
had resigned stressing, very publicly, his unwillingness to be a
political propagandist; the Labour communications team, under Peter
Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, was strengthening, and the Tories,
having failed to prove New Labour was a reincarnation of Old Labour, was
desperately seeking an effective way to assault Tony Blair.
Since then, Colver’s successor, ex-Sunday Express political editor
Charles Lewington, has boosted the size and credibility of the team,
including setting up a seven-strong regional press office network. The
network includes - for the first time - two PR agencies: in Bristol,
JBP Associates and, in Darlington, Graham Robb Media and PR.
It is, says Peter Bingle, a director of The Communication Group and a
former Conservative councillor, recognition of the importance of key
marginal seats in the next election.
Meanwhile, the high-profile marketing triumvirate, of Peter Gummer, Tim
Bell and Maurice Saatchi, has helped spawn the ‘New Labour, New Danger’
campaign, which - along with the image of hard-working John and Norma up
against Chianti-quaffing Tony and Cherie - is being communicated
Yet commentators still point to weaknesses in the Tory PR machine.
Unlike Labour - where Mandelson and Campbell call the tune - power is
less concentrated. Besides Lewington’s central office team, there is the
Government Information Service, ministerial special advisers, Bell et
al, and other media advisers, including Tim Collins, party chairman
Brian Mawhinney’s media consultant. Co-ordinating this loose coalition
is a slow and unwieldy process.
‘Lewington has created the best overall Central Office PR machine I’ve
experienced, in the way it responds to news stories and targets local
newspapers through the regional network,’ says Bingle. ‘But he is in a
weak position to manage news since, as part of Central Office, he is
less important than Number 10 and the government departments.’
Apart from jealously guarding their own information functions, some
commentators feel ministers shoot the Tory PR effort in the foot in
other ways. While some, like Michael Heseltine, John Major and Kenneth
Clarke, use every opportunity to push home a political message, the
majority of ministers do not think in terms of PR and have ‘become like
civil servants’, as one observer puts it.
Despite such obstacles, Lewington, and his team, which includes former
Times lobby journalist and diarist, Sheila Gunn, have won plaudits - at
least from their own side. One Tory insider says: ‘Charles Lewington
understands the press, as do the team he has gathered around him.’
However, Labour is held to have the sharpest communications outfit,
with Mandelson still rated the best political marketing man in
Westminster. As a spin doctor Lewington, most frequently described as
‘smooth’, does not have the tough reputation of fellow former tabloid
journalist Campbell, whose aggressiveness in pursuit of the good Labour
angle is legendary. That said, Lewington is not averse to turning on the
screws: as he showed by complaining to the BBC about last week’s edition
of Panorama, focusing on Tory rifts over Europe.
Due to the traditional Tory loyalties of the UK press, one could argue
that the hard sell is not actually necessary. A Conservative press that
is often a grateful recipient of Tory ‘leaks’ and is not adverse to pro-
Government editorials may be best won with charm.
However, the Tories do seem less adept at approaching the left leaning
press, like the Independent and the Guardian. Journalists on ‘non-Tory’
papers complain of being ‘ignored’ by Central Office, of not having
calls returned and of getting less information than colleagues on
One national broadsheet journalist said: ‘They obviously target specific
newspapers very carefully and, in doing so, I think they miss
opportunities. The Labour Party has a much clearer vision, in what they
want and what they are trying to achieve.’
The Tory PR machine has also proved less able than its Labour
contemporaries at encouraging senior members to put media relations
first. One regional journalist, at last week’s Tory conference, said
Douglas Hogg’s condemnation - faithfully recorded in a Central Office
press release - of ‘those editors and those journalists who have fed the
public on a diet of screaming headlines, alarmist lies and bogus
science’ felt like a ‘Sod you lot!’ assault on the press.
Such criticisms cannot overshadow the fact that the Tory PR machine is
undeniably better than in 1992 - and yet that year’s electoral victory
seems increasingly remote. Michael White, the Guardian’s political
editor, is one of many who suggest the solution could be out of the
hands of PR.
‘In 1992, things started quite badly for the Conservatives,’ he recalls.
‘In difficult circumstances, I would say to the people at Central
Office: ‘How are you going to get out this?’ They would say: ‘We’ve got
two things, Kinnock and tax’ and, as it turned out, they were largely
right. This time, it is much, much more difficult to imagine what they