With very few exceptions, the top comms job in Government (that of the Prime Minister’s Communications Director) goes to an ex-journalist.
Alastair Campbell – worked for the Mirror predominantly. The infamous Andy Coulson – News of the World. Robbie Gibb and Craig Oliver – the BBC.
Lee Cain, the incumbent until last week’s proverbial throwing of the pram toys, enjoyed a meteoric comms rise after a career based at the Sun and Mirror (where he once dressed as a chicken and hounded David Cameron). Meanwhile, his rumoured long-term replacement, Allegra Stratton is a former Newsnight editor.
I’m not suggesting journalists can’t make the move into comms/PR successfully. After all, it isn’t nuclear physics. Anyone with a fair mix of common sense and strategic nous stands a decent chance of doing alright.
Indeed, the logic of bringing an ex-hack into Government is understandable. In years gone by, the primary comms concern for a Prime Minister was how the national media were writing about him/her and their policies. Solution? Hire one of them to get as close as possible.
However, in a political era of fractured in-party relations, Brexit, and (especially) Covid-19 - perhaps the Communications Director role would be better suited to someone from the comms industry?
In other words, the job is now a different beast, more closely resembling a modern senior comms job - one where relationship-forming with stakeholders is essential, message creation amongst the most valuable skills, and tactical execution of a strategy not far behind.
Lee Cain and the wider Govt comms team certainly failed in these areas over the past six months.
They actually started off well. While the Govt’s wider Covid strategy has flip flopped (from herd immunity, to lockdown, to somewhere in between, then back to lockdown), the comms team’s approach can be seen as solid. Mainly - have a catchy slogan to make the rules easily digestible. Then use some sort of steps or tier system to categorise more complicated info.
Cue – ‘Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives’.
In hindsight, this should be applauded as bringing great clarity to the situation and helping foster the sort of national spirit we saw in the early stages of lockdown. This might be pushing it too far, but even the choice of colours for the slogan banner (seen most prominently adorning the Covid press conference lectern) was smart – with red, yellow and blue giving a subtle sense of cross-party cooperation in time of crisis. Of course, Boris Johnson’s refusal to involve other leaders soon put paid to any notion of this, with the home nations setting their own course.
We’ve been on the comms downslope since ‘Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save Lives’ – widely seen as moving us from clarity to comedy. Even the banner design was odd, switching to a yellow road sign format, with green font that suggested: “Let’s go!! Don’t worry about the killer disease which you can control by simply being on your guard!”
You can also argue the Brexit TV ads that started airing in late Spring (encouraging businesses to ‘Get Going!’) did little to maintain caution.
The slogans then started mutating like… well, a virus. ‘Eat Out To Help Out’, ‘The Rule of Six’, ‘Hands-Face-Space’.
Elsewhere we had the little remembered five-level system announced in May, which fell apart in weeks as things initially designated for Level 1, like the return of live sport, suddenly got the go-ahead. This morphed into the better known three tiers, which has since gone out the window for our current ‘Circuit Breaker’.
Things get bleaker when looking purely at the comms execution. Govt spokespeople seem to be woefully prepped for media briefings, with Gove and Jenrick offering the latest in a long line of cock-ups. The sheer range of spokespeople used throughout Covid also hasn’t helped message consistency.
Use of social media? See the copy and paste tweets defending Cummings wheeled out by local MPs after the Barnard Castle affair.
At least they skilfully navigated the PM being drawn in to a high profile, lose-lose, row with a popular footballer. Oh, wait…
Given Cain has overseen all of this, the chop shouldn’t have come as a surprise to him. Although in true Tory fashion, Cain was due to fail upwards, moving in to a Chief of Staff role (although commentators have suggested it would have been with limited responsibilities, hence – pram, toys, out).
While Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack (you guessed it, a former Daily Mail editor!), is tipped to formally take on the director title, it is fellow journalist Stratton who commentators expect to call the comms shots.
Perhaps, as an industry insider, I overstate the importance of direct PR/communications experience. Surely, though, it couldn’t do any harm in No.10 right now?
Having said all that, given the shambles of the organisation the comms team serves - with shifting objectives, vanishing strategies, back-stabbing and a dearth of morals – maybe it won’t matter who takes the reins.
As David Cameron might have said: “You can put lipstick on a pig…”
Article written by George Baggaley, WW Communications Lead, HP, @GeorgeBloggaley
If you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe for free to our twice weekly event and subscriber alerts.
Currently, every new subscriber will receive three of our favourite reports about the public relations sector.