In six weeks time we’ll have a new government. But before that
we’ll see the most expensive political PR battle ever fought in this
So what can we expect?
Barney Jones, editor of BBC’s Breakfast with Frost, says: ’We’ll see a
continual tussle to set the daily agenda. Everyone will be saying what
issues they think are important, but it all hangs on someone making one
Jones was speaking at last week’s IPR debate on the media and the
general election. Among a panel of senior political journalists and
former party spin doctors, he was not alone in recognising that this
will be the most tightly fought, and negative, election ever.
Guardian political editor Michael White seemed particularly depressed at
the likely rigidity of the contest: ’The media now work on the
gaffe-and- split paradigm,’ he said. As a result he believes Labour
spokesmen in particular have been ’vetted, tamed and lobotomised’.
White is of course over-stating a point. But Labour has pulled out all
stops to keep an upper hand in the news agenda and to maintain a
vice-like grip on its spokespeople. David Wilson, consultant at Matrix
Partnership and Labour adviser, says the party has tightened up its act
since 1992: ’Labour has imposed iron discipline and there is a war room
It is able to craft its message and respond quickly. Spokesmen who go
’off-message’ will not be used.’
Peter Mandelson has developed Labour’s Millbank communications HQ along
US lines, integrating its press office with a computerised rebuttal
A campaign team agrees in advance the theme for each day of the campaign
and has stories and case studies prepared.
The approach is not new in itself. Political campaigns have been managed
like this since the days of President Nixon. What is new is the speed
and intensity of the process. One Labour PR adviser said the party had
already prepared 150 stories on a variety of issues. ’The stories are
time-bombs, ready to be dropped into the political debate,’ explains
John Underwood, former Labour Party director of communications. He adds:
’Five years ago the media had a 24-hour news cycle with one daily news
Now the cycle is faster and you need to be ready to call press
conferences at short notice.’
Some now talk of a three-hour news loop, due to the fragmentation and
competition of the nation’s media. Satellite and cable channels provide
new outlets and require a bigger pool of spokespeople from the
So is it really possible to communicate consistent messages and avoid
gaffes in such an environment?
Peter Walker president-elect of the IPR says: ’It’s now impossible to
set the agenda. The tactic has to be to use the Wimbledon Football Club
approach - rough up people in the middle of the field and hope for the
long ball up front.’
Olly Grender, director of communications of Shelter and former Lib-Dem
adviser, says it is possible to control the agenda but it requires
maximum internal communications and discipline.
’The former can be achieved through IT, the latter is more difficult
because political individuals tend to be highly opinionated,’ she
It is paradoxical that while Labour now seems to have this discipline in
place, the Conservative Party, traditionally seen as the more ’top-down’
organisation, has dissent and contradiction within its ranks. Stephen
Dorrell’s recent comments on a single European Currency is a case in
While there is a pool of people quick to crow about the slickness of
Labour’s PR strategy, the Tory Party is more secretive.
It’s a known fact that it has recently re-established its Questions of
Policy committee which devises approaches to issues where there is no
party line. This committee will work alongside the Smith Square
departments for campaigning, press, research and the Chairman’s Office.
Like Labour, the party now also has the Excalibur computer system for
A Central Office spokesperson said: ’Our set up has grown substantially
since the party conference. We’ve combined the press office with
research and can now cope with rebuttals very quickly.’
While it is less technologically advanced, Central Office seems
convinced its senior PR team of former national journalists is of a
higher calibre than Labour’s.
This could be complacency. It may be that it has resigned itself to
But history has taught us never to write off John Major, especially with
the PR big guns of Sir Tim Bell and Lord Chadlington behind him.
’You’re not comparing like with like,’ points out Jon Barton, editor of
Radio 4’s Today programme, ’Labour has a co-ordinated
party-in-opposition operation. The Conservatives are the
party-in-government, so they have to co-ordinate party, government
departments and Downing Street. This will change once the election
campaign proper begins and government is suspended.’
Barton believes both machines are efficient and the resources involved
means that the campaign will be fought ferociously. But he has another
concern: ’From the last election people remember the PR stunts which
have nothing to do with policy - Labour’s Sheffield rally and
I am desperate that the campaign isn’t fought hermetically in the PR
He may be fighting a losing battle.