Spin Doctors

By The Drum, Administrator

September 3, 2003 | 9 min read

Alistair Campbell doesn?t control the news any more; he is the news. Every day his name is rolled out alongside the words ?inquiry?, ?scandal?, ?allegations?, and ultimately last week ?resignation?, all terms lodged in the lexicon of our everyday vernacular under the sub-heading ?negative?.

He ceased to manipulate the media and the media responded by voraciously manipulating his image to the outside world. Just look at that typically Machiavellian sneer on the opposite page ? pure tabloid manna. Now think back to the last time you saw a picture of him gazing out of your daily paper looking remotely empathetic or human. Can?t remember, eh? The media vultures have torn him apart and loved every single minute of it.

Anyway, now that he?s a goner we thought maybe it was time for Adline to swoop down, pick away at the bare bones of his effect on the ?spin doctor? and digest what can be learnt from the whole sorry saga that?s enveloped Number 10.

To give us an informed opinion, and illustrate that not everyone involved in the PR profession looks like a pantomime villain who?s just smelt a fart, we thought we?d ask some friendly agency heads to discuss spin, the media and where Downing Street can go from here.

Rising to the challenge we have Sophie Spyropoulos, head of Poulter Partners PR, Nick Brown, managing director of NP PR, and Steve Leigh, the deputy MD of the freshly re-branded Weber Shandwick North.

Read on for informed commentary and an analysis of Campbell?s skills, not to mention some very useful advice on how to manipulate those pesky journalists. Hey, wait a minute?

1. What does it take to be a good political adviser? Is it to be open and honest with the press or to act as a shield between politicians and the press?

SS: Open and honest, but ensuring that your spokespeople are well prepared in terms of giving the press the answers they need. The more you shield people the more you create a sense of intrigue and deception. Spokespeople need to be brave and truthful and they will find the press are far more likely to be on their side ? it?s human nature. A good political adviser understands human nature.

SL: A good political advisor, which Campbell undoubtedly is, has to manage a delicate balancing act, feeding the media?s appetite for information and the inside track, whilst preserving public faith in the integrity of government.

There?s a place for openness and honesty, but it would be na? to assume you can be totally open with a highly competitive media that?s seeking to create the next scandal in order to sell more newspapers or gain a greater audience.

NB: It takes a 24/7 approach, you are never out of the loop and you need to be on your toes. If you are not a grafter, apart from having the necessary political expertise, you won?t survive. It is comparable to handling a pop star ? both politicians and pop stars have egos and 24/7 demands.

It is good to be open and honest but only offer what is required. For instance, Bill Clinton and his team were exponents of this tactic, giving half answers often. It is up to the journalist to ask the right question. Good PRs get close to their journalist contacts and create an on/off the record scenario for their political client or boss.

2. Will it ever be possible to rebuild the relationship between the government and the media? And what are the barriers to this being done successfully?

SS: I think there are a lot of personal vendettas and issues floating about. Relationships have been muddied and so much personal integrity and honour is at stake on all sides. Everyone has behaved badly. Interestingly, the right-wing media still feels that the BBC is unfairly pro the government. This is undoubtedly an episode that has got out of hand between a few individuals. There has been a ridiculous amount of focus on minutiae and very little attention on the bigger picture.

However, the individuals involved on the government side tend to be very senior. Campbell needs to go and I think he is preparing the way. His approach has been far less confrontational over the past few days.

Much depends on the global political landscape and in particular Iraq. Blair would do well to be seen to be concentrating on the domestic agenda.

SL: At the end of the day a truce will be called ? not least as the Hutton inquiry is likely to apportion the blame equally between both parties. Media and government have a symbiotic relationship, which may have its peaks and troughs, but ultimately mutual benefit always wins the day.

The main barrier to peace will be the level of personal animosity that will exist between the key protagonists. I would expect key personnel to be quietly bumped sideways in order to preserve a comfortable day-to-day working relationship. Whispers from the BBC indicate that Gilligan?s career is over, although Richard Sambrook should escape unscathed.

NB: Yes, it is possible to rebuild the relationship between the government and the media. Both need each other but Campbell needs to go for this to happen. He has become the story and when PR people become the story, it deflects from the policy messages.

Tony Blair will be secretly livid and very disappointed that this has happened. Campbell has been Blair?s biggest asset but is now Blair?s biggest problem. Blair will have to get rid of Campbell but this is taking longer, probably because Campbell knows the secrets and Blair probably thinks this is dangerous. Better to keep Campbell on the inside than on the outside is my guess.

As soon as Campbell is forgotten, the emphasis will switch onto other issues. The media have the scent of blood and some sections of the media won?t settle until Campbell has been deposed or leaves.

3. Post-Campbell, will there be a less hysterical relationship between Number 10 and the press?

SS: Probably not. Although there may be a lull. We live in a world dominated by global communications and constant news output. Bad news helps to make people feel smug about their own lives. We have a constant and prurient fascination with it. The media concentrates on the bad or the sensational, the easy win, the path of least resistance. That?s a problem for the government.

SL: Campbell has simply become the media watchword for this government?s greater media savvy. After his departure, there will be a couple of attempts to identify the ?new Alistair?, but I would be very surprised if a new advisor reached the same profile as he has done. It may calm things down, but I don?t think any strong government will ever lose the ?spin? tag that we have seen develop during Blair?s administration.

4. When the spin doctor is involved directly in the news, is it possible for him/her to function to the very best of their ability?

SS: No.

SL: No, the extra demands on a person?s time must be considerable. That, combined with the accompanying pack of photographers and cameramen that seem to follow his every move at present, must put a great personal strain on any individual.

I think this is shown by Campbell going on Channel 4 to vent his spleen, which is now widely regarded as an error of judgement.

NB: The spin doctor shouldn?t be the news. If they become the news, they have failed.

5. How can the Downing Street press office work to re-establish a credible reputation?

SS: Change the people involved. Move those turgid monthly briefing sessions to a more informal one-to-one style. Talk with the media not at them and don?t underestimate the public. Try to retrain people to answer, not evade, questions. Deliver messages but ensure that spokespeople do not change fundamentally who they are. If you have bad news let people know about it. Always take full responsibility and self-flagellate more than anyone else could ? invariably people come out in sympathy ? even the media sometimes!

SL: Research commissioned by Weber Shandwick has shown that the public is two times more likely to trust the BBC over the government on the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Downing Street needs to take this finding very seriously if it is to rebuild public faith.

In its favour, it has the personality of Tony Blair, who still benefits from considerable public goodwill, despite what has happened ? a lesser leader would be finished by now. Also, I suspect the BBC will be damaged by Hutton?s findings, which will provide some breathing space for the government.

NB: Downing Street should remember what made them win the election. They created trust amongst the voters with clever PR and distrust in of the Tories. The current government now look as bad as John Major?s government. Downing Street needs to appoint a communications chief and a new team.

Therefore, a new team, schmoozing sessions with journalists and the lobby, and an impartial approach as much as possible. Downing Street bullied some journalists and offered exclusive stories and leaks to their favourite newspapers and this has backfired, as the ones who have been kicked are now kicking out, i.e., it has gone full circle.

Downing Street?s biggest mistake was to bully journalists when they were winning, because now they are losing journalists are kicking them.

Do you have any views on the way political advising is developing? Are the days of Alistair Campbell-type figures over, or have they only just begun? Let us have your views by e-mail to richard.draycott@carnyx.com.


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