With apologies to Gorkana, who interviewed me a while back, and to whom I said I would post the interview when they ran it, here it is a few days late. They chose to run it on the day of Danny Boyle’s brilliant Olympics opening ceremony, so in common with many others on the planet, I was distracted. However, reading through the interview now, it may carry a resonance and relevance for many involved in the Olympics project – there is lots of speculation and controversy along the way but in the end all that matters is what happens, rather than what people say about it.
In other words, the opening ceremony was brilliant because it was brilliant, not because lots of people said it was. There is a controversy over empty seats at sold out events, because some of the seats are empty, and what matters is that they are filled. Tom Daley is upset because he didn’t win a medal, and the upset is exacerbated rather than created by the attention seeking no-mark who chose to get attention by insulting Daley re his father’s death. Bradley Wiggins was a hero when he won the Tour de France, shared the disappointment of Mark Cavendish when the world ganged up on them over Box Hill, can be a hero again tomorrow in the time trial, but win or lose he has a lot of reputation in the bank. China’s swimming sensation Ye Shiwen has gold in her hand to rebut the sneers of those suggesting she can only have done it with drugs; innocent till proven guilty, the history of sport the reason for the suspicions, her amazing talent still shining through. Those who once reported the Games were a waste of money, and who are now busy reporting how their readers and viewers have ‘finally’ caught the bug, are having to face the fact that sometimes the positive is so positive it just overwhelms the negative and the cynical. I guess that is part of the message in this chat below …
Gorkana meets Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former Director of Communications in No 10 Downing Street, to discuss the importance of a strong strategic grounding to communications activities, why the media has influence not power and why spin has become a meaningless phrase.
The latest instalment of Alastair Campbell’s diaries, The Burden of Power, runs to almost 700 pages. It’s a bit too much to digest word for word when you buy the book only hours before meeting Campbell for the first time, so the natural inclination of the time-strapped reviewer, like many of the acquaintances of Tony Blair’s former Director of Communications, is to head straight for the index. It reads like a dramatis personae of the New Labour project, but as this volume covers the two years immediately after 9/11 international figures and the intelligence community also feature prominently.
But there is one group whose presence appears muted, especially when you consider this is the diary of a PR man. Where are all the journalists? What’s all the fuss over Leveson if Estelle Morris has a bigger entry than Rupert Murdoch?
“I have had individual journalists say to me: ‘I can’t believe I’m only in there once,’ or ‘I can’t believe I am not in there at all.’ If you look at the start of the book there is a Who’s Who. I remember the researcher who works with me did a draft of the list and when we checked it against the index some of the journalists we thought were bound to be regularly mentioned in the book weren’t in it at all and others were barely in it.
“I think what that does show is that for all the people who say we were obsessed with the media and I was chasing the headlines and all these clichés, the media was only part of my job. The biggest part of my job, particularly at this time, was strategy, it was co-ordination, it was political. I was trying to hold things together when at times it felt like they were falling apart.
“I was the Director of Communications, I was the main media person, but actually dealing with the media was a part of every day but not a huge part of every day.”
It is understandable that media had become a smaller part of Campbell’s daily life as in the latter days of his time in Downing Street he had handed over the daily media briefings to two deputies both quotable as the Prime Minister’s official Spokesman, Godric Smith and Tom Kelly. But he maintains there was a general misunderstanding by the media of the nature of his role in government, much of which has led to the pejorative connotations of the word spin.
“This whole thing about spin – and I think the term is so overused it is almost meaningless – I think it was born of the media age becoming a reality and the media becoming much more self-obsessed and self-regarding.
“If you track through all the people who have moved from journalism to political communication, there are far more failures than successes because a lot of them kind of assume it is quite easy and straight forward – they’re just there writing stories in the moment. The thing about strategy is that it is not in the moment, it is about the medium to long term. You are trying to join up dots to paint a picture. That to me is what strategic communications is.”
It is this strategic element that colours much of our conversation. It permeates his analysis of every scenario from the TBGBs, the Westminster shorthand for the dynamic tension between New Labour’s leading protagonists Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – “For all the difficulties we had in the relationship, we never ever stopped thrashing out the strategy. We did it on a daily basis. The key insight for me on strategy is that strategy is where you have to have the argument not avoid it” – through to the recent car crash interview of junior Treasury minister Chloe Smith defending fuel duty freezes to Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. “The reason she didn’t answer the question is that she knew in her heart it didn’t fit the strategy.”
Campbell doesn’t denigrate the role of messaging or tactics in communications, just that they had to be subordinate to the overall strategy. So whether it was the daily meeting with Whitehall colleagues to review the news agenda and deciding what responses needed to be made, maintaining the ‘grid’ of forthcoming communications activities (something he now sees in “all major organisations”), or responding to departmental initiatives, they should all be co-ordinated to the strategic goals.
“People can scorn as much as they like, they can say it is all spin, but in the modern media age you have to have a sense of how you want to be seen out there. Most of the media is negative. If you let them define you you’ll be defined negatively. So do your own definition. It’s not what they say about you in the papers that counts, it’s what you say about yourself, and what success you have in getting that through to the public.”
One of the most important elements in Campbell’s view is the authenticity of the message. It is all very well having the right lines to take and Q&As all written down, but if the interlocutors can’t assimilate and interpret the message in an authentic manner then the message is compromised.
“I always thought John Reid, Jack Cunningham and Margaret Becket were really good examples of this. You give them the lines to take in the Q&A, they’d absorb them, you talk through it with them but then when they went on the television or they went on the radio they then said it in their own way so they didn’t come across as automatons.”
The risk is that the public are very good at smelling out politicians. Any messenger with a hint of artifice quickly gets found out. “It is why, in his own way, John Prescott is such a great communicator because he will go on television and he’ll get the words all muddled up, he’ll call somebody by the wrong name but if you’re watching it, you’ll know what he is on about. You know what he means. You know what he stands for. There is an authenticity there and I think that is really, really important.”
Campbell believes these lessons are just as important in the corporate world as in the political sphere. “I’m repeatedly struck when you go into an organisation full of clever highly paid people, and you get the people at the top to explain what their objectives and their strategy are and they say different things.
“A lot of organisations think that PR means ‘we have got a duff product, let’s pretend it is good’. That is a hopeless way of thinking. What it actually is is the use of strategy to make sure it is as good as it can be. What is the objective, what is the strategy and only then do tactics, and make sure you know what you are on about and you have thought through the tough questions before anyone else.”
Although Campbell’s belief in the relevance of the strategic communications principles he enacted in government more than 10 years ago remain rock solid, the media environment in which they are disseminated has been on less stable foundations. News organisations have been under severe financial strain, a whole range of social media has emerged, and the ethics of journalism in the UK have come under public scrutiny with the Leveson Inquiry
Given his sometimes testy relationship with the traditional media, it is not surprising that Campbell has been quick to embrace the opportunities offered by social media. He has almost 170,000 followers on Twitter (@campbellclaret), which is at the top end of the political spectrum, and he regularly updates his blog. But he is clear that this new frontier does not operate in a state of isolation. Every time he makes an appearance on the mainstream media he has noted a sudden jump in traffic to his website, leading him to conclude that mainstream conventional media is still driving the agenda.
This holistic view of the media community driven by interaction between the different channels extends to the mainstream media too. In his appearance before the Leveson inquiry earlier this summer, David Cameron admitted that No 10’s current media strategy was skewed towards broadcasting because of the rise of 24-hour news coverage and the impact of the main news bulletins. This analysis is too one dimensional for Campbell, although he does concede that broadcast news is more trusted than print journalism. “The reason why politics and politicians continue to focus on the way that they do on the printed media is because printed media has huge influence over the broadcasters.”
As evidence he cites the continual obsession with newspaper reviews on news channels and his experience of the few occasions he has been involved with TV documentaries. “Most TV research meetings I have been to, you find the team that sitting there not with proper research but with newspaper cuttings. It is crap.”
Underlying all this is the general perception that the media has power. This is a view not shared by Campbell, a point he was challenged over by Lord Justice Leveson when he gave evidence to the inquiry.
“I don’t believe they have power in the way that power is commonly understood. I think they have influence, whereas politicians have real power. Rupert Murdoch can’t stand up in the House of Commons and cut the price of petrol, now Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers can influence whether he might, but the power is with George Osborne.”
“What I really, really hope comes out of Leveson is the political class reclaiming power rather than ceding it and pandering and doing all the things that they do for the papers. If you spend all your time worrying about what the papers are going to say about you, you wouldn’t get out of bed. My message to anyone – government, business, charity, whatever, is the same – focus on what you do, that is all that counts and if you get it right and you are doing the right things and making the right decisions then your message is going to get out there.”
“So I am not saying don’t worry about what they are going to say but don’t let that make you change course. I am gobsmacked with some of the people I have worked with since I left who are really bright and running successful organisations but when you sit down and talk to them you think ‘God these guys are really scared of the press’ and you say to them there is nothing to be scared of once you have decided that actually you really don’t care what some journalist thinks. They are powerless and once you’ve decided that then actually you have so much more power.”
It is nine years since Campbell left the front line of communications. The last entry of this volume of diaries marks his departure from Downing Street on Friday 29 August 2003. Although he has been heavily involved in two general election campaigns and the bedding down of Gordon Brown’s premiership since, it wasn’t until this spring that he took on a formal communications role when he joined up again with his former deputy, Tim Allan at Portland, as a member of the agency’s advisory board alongside Michael Portillo, Tony Ball and Sir Chris Powell.
This role allows him to cherry pick the projects that interest him and it is no surprise to hear that the first thing he got involved in was a mentoring and training programme for all the Portland staff “particularly in this area of strategy”. As a sports obsessive, the make-up and balance of a team has a great significance to Campbell, so it is important to him that not only will he be working alongside many people he knows well from the Labour years, including Martin Sheehan, David Bradshaw, Steve Morris and Mark Flanagan, but Tim Allan has also recruited people who have worked for David Cameron. Most of all he is looking forward to working with organisations who are trying to do business and to communicate in a different way.
Short-termism is not the sole preserve of journalists. His view is that many are also too fixated with the now. “I think that a lot of people in the PR industry just think it is about the next story and did they get a good show? Measuring column inches and is it positive or negative is fine but actually the better question is, does it fit the strategy?”
He would be less concerned whether the tone of a story is negative than whether it fitted the strategy. What he would say to the banks, for example, is to get beyond the admission phase where they accept fault for the economy’s failings and explain the extent to which they can become part of the solution.
The final sentence of The Burden of Power is “to be continued…”. Whether we get the diary of a Campbell, the corporate communications adviser, he is not sure. He is less disciplined at making his entries than he was when he used to sit down without fail at the end of each day, partly because it was such a useful process of evaluating what needed to be done. There are aspects of the current diaries, such as his public fight against depression and the pressures of family life, that would not be truncated by his departure from Government.
The range of his activities from public speaking to charity fund-raising or writing has provided him a “great life” and helped postpone his return to a front-line role. He certainly looked very content when we met as he prepared to cycle round to various London locations for three random book signings arranged over Twitter. The last 10 years are also not devoid of anecdote. Here’s one, not a diary entry but a verbatim account as our interview came to and end, that could well feature for the entry of Saturday 13 June 2009:
“I went to Rebekah Wade’s second wedding. Hot day, the ceremony down by a lake. Cameron was there. Gordon was there. Lots of media people. Fiona and I didn’t stay at the reception very long, just went along and had a drink and left. Anyway Cameron at one point was standing on his own and I thought ‘Oh, I will go and have a chat’. So I went over and had a bit of small talk. Then I said: ‘Look obviously I don’t want you to win the election, but if you do win I want to say that if you decide that culturally something really has to be done about the press then I would support you on that, and I would do what I could to make sure the Labour Party supported you and didn’t play politics with it’. And he said ‘Yes, it’s got worse hasn’t it?’ and I said ‘Yes, to be honest I thought me leaving might make things better but it has got worse.’ So we started to talk about it, and who should appear at his shoulder, but Rupert Murdoch saying ‘well here’s an odd couple – What you guys talking about then?’ ‘Oh, we were just chatting about this and that’ said Cameron, and that was that.”
Or so they thought.
Alastair Campbell’s latest books are Burden of Power – Countdown to Iraq, and The Happy Depressive, a personal memoir about depression and the politics of happiness. Both are published by Random House, £25 and £4.99.
Alastair was speaking to Gorkana’s Michael Davies.