Alastair Campbell on Spin
Alastair Campbell has been in Australia. Within hours of arrival he was asked what he thought about the leadership speculation in the Labor Party, and he said he thought it should make a decision rather than just talk about it. A day or two later, it had done precisely that, deciding that it was more likely to win the election in September if Kevin Rudd were leader and prime minister instead of Julia Gillard.
I’m not saying he made it happen, but he saw what was going on. Much as I admire Gillard, and limited as my knowledge of Australian politics is, this appears to have been the right decision. It may not be enough, but the last poll I saw put the Labor Party just two points behind the Liberals and Rudd a long way ahead of Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition, as preferred prime minister, where Gillard had been behind.*
So Campbell’s judgement seemed sound. And, in a speech to the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs in Melbourne, he proved that he still has one of the best minds in the world on the communications business.
He even picked up on one of the lines I use in our New Labour in Government class at Queen Mary, University of London, in which I ask students to explain why, if New Labour was so good at spin, it gained a reputation for spin?
So if PRs were so good at PR, why did PR get such a bad reputation?
He does his bit to try to counter this perception: “There has always been spin. Read the bible for heaven’s sake.” And: “One of the lawyers I was once involved with, at the time of the Hutton inquiry, said to me sometimes law is just PR with a wig on. And more expensive.”
He was interesting on how communications works in new unmediated media, saying “Here is the thing,” which is something I think Blair started saying towards the end of his time as Prime Minister:
People do not trust politicians like they used to. They don’t trust the media to tell the truth like they used to. They don’t trust banks or brands. So who do we trust? We trust each other.
People trust their friends – that is the genius of Facebook, the concept of the friend … the friend of the friend of the friend is a key strategic tool in joining up the dots to paint the picture that you want to paint. And your message has to be so clear that even a child with a paintbrush could get it and pass it on.
TB understood instinctively that in the modern world comms is not simply the means by which you explain, it must be integrated into your strategy. Churchill knew that too. So did Lincoln. They just did not have to have someone thinking about it for them 24 hours of every day
So did Paul Keating. So did Bob Hawke. Maybe Howard in the early years. So did Muhammad Ali. So does Angela Merkel. So does Richard Branson. So does Jose Mourinho.
And how odd that someone like Rupert Murdoch, his papers so brilliant at tearing down the reputations of others, couldn’t see that if their fell way below the standards they expect of people in other walks of public life, his reputation would be hit hard, maybe irreparably.
Take some of the extraordinary success stories of the new economy – Google, Apple, Starbucks, Nestlé, Vodafone. People may love what they do and give, but they also want to know whether they respect their customers, pay their taxes, use slave labour, cut down forests or whatever.
Anyway, inevitably, the one bit that the Mail on Sunday saw fit to copy out of Campbell’s blog three days later was the second paragraph here:
I read a book recently on the relationship between Churchill and de Gaulle, who could regale each other with stories of their public deceptions, and perhaps in doing so deceived each other too. Another recent book, Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross, showed how Churchill got actively involved in the preparation of what he called the ‘bodyguard of lies’ to accompany the truth that an invasion across the English Channel was being planned. Macintyre states as a fact that after the invasion, Churchill lied to Parliament to keep various deceptions going.
Yet if the pollsters were to do a survey, who had a greater commitment to wartime truth, Churchill in World War II or Tony Blair in Iraq? I think we know what the answer would be … it just wouldn’t be true. Interesting paradox in a world full of them.
The Mail Online headline writer spelt him Alistair Campbell (below, in case they change the website), which meant that I did not read on. Another thing I explain to my students is that if they can spell Alastair Campbell correctly, they will get a 2:1 (warning: this is a joke). Marvellously, when the Telegraph came to copy this three-day-old story out of the Mail, it also copied this misspelling (also captured below).
If I had read on in the Mail on Sunday, though (and thanks to Mark Colman for doing so on my behalf), I would have found that Simon Walters, the political editor, although he knows enough not to get his Iraq dossiers mixed up, says of David Kelly that he was “thought to have committed suicide”, as if there might be some doubt on this point.
The Mail Spin Machine. It just never gives up.
*This is, incidentally, how Labor under Bob Hawke won in 1983 – a change of leadership just three weeks before polling day – and how Labour here could have held on in 2010, if it had switched to Alan Johnson or David Miliband in January of that year.Tagged in: alastair campbell, communications
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