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Marketeer of the Month

By The Drum, Administrator

October 26, 2004 | 6 min read

And so, Boris Johnson is making headlines once more – but this time for all the wrong reasons. The loveable rogue of the Conservative Party, a bike-riding enthusiast and a media darling who enjoys making regular appearances on everything from “Have I got News For You” to the annual Glastonbury Festival coverage on the BBC, has come unstuck in his role of editor of the oldest printed magazine in British publishing history – the Spectator.

Johnson, who is the Conservative MP for Henley-on-Thames, has been attacked from all sides of the media and political spectrum for an anonymous leader column that launched a vociferous attack on the people of Liverpool, following the death of hostage Ken Bigley in Iraq. Having apologised for some of his statements – most notably the reference to the mistaken belief that drunken Liverpool fans were partly responsible for the death of 96 fans at Hillsborough – he finds it has done little to ease the tensions. And while he has tried to make amends with a peace-making trip to Liverpool under his wings, he does appear to have seriously misjudged the mood of the city and, perhaps to a larger extent, the nation.

So where does Johnson go from here and has his feel-good, bumbling Toff reputation been irreparably tarnished? His visit to Liverpool has not had the damage limitation effect that presumably Michael Howard, leader of the Tory party, hoped it would have, so what can the Conservative Party and Johnson do now to avoid even more damage to their reputations?

“The publication of that article and his recent PR trip was completely ill judged,” comments Jo Leah, managing director of Weber Shandwick North.

Sarah Probert Hill of Pavilion concurs, commenting: “I personally think he should have resigned. Or at least offered his resignation to the Conservative Party as a form of apology. The main issue for me is that there is a conflict of interest between his two roles as the editor of the Spectator and as an MP representing his constituents in Parliament on behalf of the Conservative Party.”

So what could he have done to make amends? “Well,” continues Leah, “for a start he should not have done a tour of the city – instead he should have stayed in one place and answered questions. He should have also had a private meeting with the Bigley family to apologise to them in person.

“Liverpudlians have a very long memory and they are slow to forgive. Boris has to make a huge gesture to the people of Liverpool, and I don’t think what he has done has really helped.”

Should he have published the article? Probert Hill is unsure: “It is a tricky one. The timing was completely wrong, as he came too close to Ken Bigley’s death. Even though he didn’t actually write it, he has to take ultimate responsibility. But he is a loose cannon for the Conservative Party. While I am sure that in time it will go away, the reputation of the party has been affected.”

“The simple fact of the matter was that the article was entirely inappropriate, and to that end he should never have published it,” states James Holden, managing director of Henley-in-Arden-based Leader Communications. “I can’t understand what he was looking to get out of publishing the material, considering all that has gone on. I worked for a short time in the city and it is patently obvious that Boris Johnson knows nothing about the feeling or sentiment of that city. My advice would have been to have him retract the statement altogether, while also apologising to the city as a whole. The trip to Liverpool will help him. But at the same time he has done a great deal of damage to his reputation and to the Conservative Party.”

Account executive of Birmingham based Citigate Communications Bridget Gildea maintains that Johnson’s freedom of speech should be respected: \"Liverpool doesn\'t seem to be particularly keen on accepting his apology, and anyway, given that he\'s eccentric enough to voice such an opinion in the current climate, he should stick to his guns and cite free speech and his right to an opinion. Given the number of empty soundbites that are spat out by politicians each day, a candid opinion is a rare enough thing to be valuable, even if you don\'t agree with it.”

Tony Tighe, managing director of Mere Communications, steadfastly believes that Johnson was at fault in publishing the leader as it stood, although he agrees with its wider theme. He states: “He should never have published that leader. Although, at the same time, I do agree with certain themes within the article. I suppose it really hasn’t made much of a difference to the popularity of the Tory party, as they don’t really have much of a presence in Merseyside anyway.”

However, Tighe remains unconvinced that there will be a lasting backlash among traditional Tory voters. He comments: “While he has really offended the people of Merseyside, and they are well within their rights to hold him to task, I actually think people outside of Merseyside don’t really care that much about the comments made and therefore I can’t really see it having a huge effect on either Johnson or the Conservative Party as a whole.”

Leah, meanwhile, maintains that the dynamics of Liverpool separate it from the rest of England, and to that extent Johnson will need to work hard to restore their faith: “You have to really understand the dynamics of the city. We opened up there in February and it is a completely different city to work in. It is a very small business community and there are lots of politics in the city, and therefore you have to deal with politics with a small “p”. Liverpudlians might take things to heart but they also have a big heart and if he manages to successfully apologise, then I am sure that he would be welcomed into the fold.”

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