It’s a fair bet that Alastair Campbell, Mirror journalist-turned
Government spin meister, didn’t have the happiest Christmas.
Having to cope with the Mandelson and Robinson sagas, closely followed
by the fall-out from Margaret Cook’s book on her ex-husband and Charlie
Whelan’s departure had Campbell and Tony Blair wondering what had gone
wrong with their once carefully controlled PR strategy.
Part of the answer, as Campbell explained to The Fabian Society last
week, is to expand the opportunities for Government ministers to give
their messages straight to voters, live and unedited.
So we can expect to see far more of Tony Blair on the sofa with Richard
and Judy, as well as the myriad of specially tailored articles written
by his press team and printed in many regional newspapers last week. The
ethnic and women’s press will also be offered more interviews with
The stategy has been pinched from President Clinton’s 1992 election
campaign, when he eschewed the tough interviews with Larry King and his
ilk in favour of popular breakfast shows.
Even in the UK, politicians have always been star turns on mass market
shows. Radio 2’s Jimmy Young has interviewed Blair six times, and he and
Gordon Brown have already done the rounds of the breakfast TV shows.
But the current plan will see a greater concentration of non-traditional
media being offered interviews in the hope that the Government can get
its messages out unsullied by the latest sex scandal or gaffe.
’It’s not a question of spin, it’s facts that need to be communicated
here,’ says Phil Murphy, who joins the Labour Party next month as
assistant general secretary (communications). ’We need to get the
message across that the Government is positively affecting people’s
lives, and cut through all the personal froth.’
But the irony of this tactic, and its potential pitfall, became all too
clear as Blair chatted amiably with the king and queen of daytime TV,
Richard and Judy. Asked about Hoddle’s comments about disabled people,
Blair found himself drawn into saying that he thought the England
manager should resign.
Of course, he didn’t actually say that. He couched his comment with the
proviso that Hoddle may have been misquoted. But what was splashed over
papers the following morning was effectively that Blair wanted Hoddle to
This early hiccup in its new PR plan perfectly illustrates why the
Government should not assume that Blair will be given an easy ride on
daytime TV, or for that matter, in women’s and regional press.
’There’s a real danger with those kind of chatty interviews that the
relaxed atmosphere might take you off your guard,’ says Hugo Brooke,
managing director of training firm Media Interviews.
And much as Campbell and Blair would have liked Richard and Judy to have
stuck to discussing policy announcements, their viewers were as
interested to hear anecdotes about Cherie and the kids and what Blair
thought of the Hoddle row.
But sources close to the Government insist the game is not about cutting
out the difficult interviews in nationals and on the BBC in favour of
easier times with ’softer’ media. The Government will continue its
relationship with lobby correspondents, but believes there are other
legitimate routes of getting the message over.
Some point out that the plan will mean the Government can target the
voters, mainly C1/C2/D’s, who are largely excluded from political
discussion in this country. ’It’s a very effective way of reaching this
group - the crucial swinging voter,’ says Charles Lewington,
communications director for the Conservative Party from 1995-1997 and
now chairman of political PR agency Media Strategy.
Regional coverage is also likely to leave more of an impression with
readers. ’People do tend to believe the news in regional papers to a
greater extent than the nationals,’ says David Hill, former Labour Party
communications head, now a director of Bell Pottinger Good Relations.
’They recognise that regionals do not have so much of a political axe to
But more dealings with the regionals will also mean a new workload for
Campbell and his team, with every briefing being tailored to one
There is also a risk that even regional papers, who may initially
welcome a by-lined piece from the Prime Minister, may tire of the PR
’Our readers wouldn’t believe a piece like the one sent out last week
was written by the PM himself,’ says Ian Savage, deputy editor of the
Bolton Evening News.
Most observers, however, believe the strategy is a wise one. ’If it
worked for Clinton, there’s every chance it will work for Blair,’ says
But Lewington suggests that Campbell may have been better off reserving
the regional strategy for later in the Government’s term of office. He
also advises caution in assuming that regional TV offers a trouble-free
route. ’You don’t want to have the PM interviewed by a regional TV
anchorperson if the Government is in trouble,’ he says. ’That’s when any
ambitious journalist has one eye on their career and turns into Jeremy