How are relations between the media and politics – and between governments and their electorates – changing? What can governments learn from business, and vice versa, in terms of communications and marketing? And what do these changing attitudes mean for the future democratic and economic health of nations? Alastair Campbell, who resigned from Downing Street earlier this year after a decade as UK prime minister Tony Blair’s communications head and closest adviser, offers a personal view
Having spent a decade at the top of political journalism and a decade close to the top of politics as the central chapters of my professional life, I have – since my resignation from Downing Street – been reflecting on relations between politics and the media. During those two decades, both have seen enormous change. When I started out in political journalism, it was a near given that Britain would never again see a Labour government. That “reality” has been turned on its head. The media, meanwhile, have changed beyond recognition.
I have been uniquely placed at the interface of media and politics. From that position I have seen my respect for the media fall and my respect for politics grow. I believe the political class has to do a better job of standing up for itself against the relentless negativity it now faces – a negativity which, in my view, has a detrimental impact not just upon politics, but upon our optimism and, perhaps, therefore our success as a country.
First, a reality check. Like all countries, the UK faces huge challenges. But we have a strong economy, low inflation, low interest rates and unemployment, rising living standards, rising investment and standards in the main public services, falling crime and a leader respected around the world.
Yet nothing like that picture emerges from the UK’s own media. John Lloyd, a journalist who shares some of my concerns about the influence of the modern media upon the democratic process, said in an article in the Financial Times magazine: “A government that has delivered healthy economic growth… [and] has an internationally famed, if controversial, leader… is monitored by a media that express more contempt for it than do media in any other major state.” He said that people outside the UK were stunned by what they saw as a media that was “polemically extreme, rhetorically bitter and savagely dismissive”.
The age-old creative tension between politics and media has developed into something far more destructive. Politics and media both have a problem with trust and turnout, reflected for politicians in declining voter participation, and for the media in the ever more bitter struggle to hold on to market share.
While most evident in the UK, the factors that got us to this situation are becoming more relevant to other modern democracies, and concerns about their impact are now regularly voiced by counterparts around the world.
The first factor is cultural change: there is less tradition, like the tradition of voting; there is less political tribalism born in the family. People earn more, know more, demand more and do not automatically respect people in public life.
Second, the media have changed in size, scale, nature and impact. We see more and bigger newspapers and magazines, huge and growing TV and radio choice, the internet and IT, an enormous array of specialist publications, and a growing and influential ethnic media.
Spin and counter-spin
I argue that the changes we made to Labour’s communications were the minimum required for a major organization to adapt to the realities of this faster, tougher and more aggressive media age in which you have to fight hard to be heard across this explosion of outlets.
But it became known as spin, and what I thought would be a “chattering class” issue became a broader problem for the government and for politics in general.
The government has attempted to respond in a number of ways: trying to raise the profile of Parliament, for example, through the prime minister becoming the first to appear before Parliamentary committees; monthly press conferences; media engagements that go into greater depth; a centre that is strong enough now to let go a bit and encourage more divergent voices; a greater focus on strategic and long-term issues, for example, through the publication of a strategic audit of the good and bad in Britain; and the publication of a Prospectus of long-term challenges and choices on which the government is actively seeking a real dialogue with the country.
But one thing that politicians of all parties must do is restore the legitimacy of political communications and challenge media cynicism about it. Nobody bats an eyelid when big companies spend massive sums to advertise their products. Nor when a new film comes out and a great freebie-laden hype machine clanks into action with celebrities at the forefront of it. Or when a major sporting event, such as the Rugby World Cup takes place, with a strong message, and anyone with a marketing budget worth the name gets involved – particularly after England win it.
Yet in the far more important relationship between government and the governed, which affects every single person, voter or not, there is thought to be something terrible about politicians trying to communicate directly to and with the public. The media see that as impossibly dull and many now see their job as being the barrier to that communication. Yet it is not just a function of a government or political party to communicate, but their permanent democratic duty.
This approach – making the basic democratic case for communications, for assessing public opinion and using that in devising communications strategies – does mean identifying the other changes that have got us to where we are.
Too much space to fill, not enough news to fill it
Perhaps the biggest change has been 24-hour news, which has forced newspapers to adapt and move further down market amid the fierce competition within and between the various media sectors. Newspapers feel that they do best not through the traditional purveying of news, but through campaigning posture – with politicians an easy target.
The barriers between various parts of the media have fallen – some days it will be a tabloid that leads on foreign policy while a broadsheet has a celebrity front-page banner story. And broadcasters have so much space to fill, with not enough major news to fill it, that they too have been driven downmarket into the celebrity obsession, feeding off the papers for their agenda in a perpetual news cycle, a marketplace that literally never shuts.
The pace of the 24-hour media age has also led to a decline in standards with the imperative to get the story first, right or wrong; not the story right, however long it takes. And a tenet of modern journalism now appears to be the right to report grave allegations, regardless of whether you have any evidence of their truth.
Meanwhile, the fusion between news and comment in most papers is almost complete, and that too has made an impact upon the broadcasters. The two-way report, in which the reporter is interviewed by a colleague in the studio, now forms the bulk of TV and radio political coverage.
The subtext is: you don’t want to hear what the politicians are saying; you want to hear what we are saying about what they really mean. Even a Tony Blair speech might be reduced to a clip followed by a man or woman waving his or her arms around to make it seem more exciting. That is their response to this more competitive and noisy marketplace.
Too clever by half
In adapting to media change, the government was at first liked by the media. Our professionalization became an important part of the New Labour story. Politics was being presented in the media in neat little packages, which we helped to provide.
But we should never forget that Britain is the country where it is possible to be too clever by half. Our success became resented. Having played such a role in helping us put over our message, the media felt more inclined to try to stop our message being communicated.
Geopolitical change has also played its part in this new politics/media landscape. The end of the Cold War, along with the certainties of great competing ideologies, has made political argument and debate more complicated. Yet the media still prefer to see things in clear left/right, black/white certainties. It sometimes feels as if they are reporting on a different age.
And, of course, while politicians are wrestling with complex long-term problems, the media can give the sense that solutions are easy. The red button/green button syndrome – should asylum seekers be held on floating reception centres? Yes – press green, no – press red.
Maybe a “life is more complicated” button or a “yes, but can I explain” button might be useful. TV viewers can vote in a Pop Idol contest or on reality TV popularity contests and feel instant empowerment. Yet they vote in an election, and then the processes seem remote, and it all takes so long. Yet which, in reality, is more important?
This challenge of communicating long-term change in the red-button era of immediacy is perhaps the most difficult one we face. Move outside politics and the noise problem can be even greater because at least major politicians will always get coverage, even if they may not like it. Launch a major brand these days, and you are targeting not just press, PR, TV and radio, but events, games, text messages, supermarket trolley handles and guerrilla campaigns.
It all adds to the message if it’s your brand. It can all just add to the noise for the consumer. It has been interesting to see the number of major companies whose frustration with the difficulties in communicating core value propositions through conventional routes has led to them starting their own media outlets, be they supermarkets, airlines or football clubs. And the take-up suggests the frustrations are shared by consumers.
That kind of consumer-based approach is being adapted by the more imaginative of our members of Parliament, who are developing a relationship with constituents based upon solid analysis of their views and interests, so that the MP can become a provider of a communications and advice service on the things that really matter to them. As a result, the MP becomes “one of us”, not a mere flag-waver.
In this context, I would like to defend focus groups, which have become a symbol of the media distaste for politics – their scorn being somewhat hypocritical in that media organizations as much as any other companies constantly examine the attitudes of their consumers, in their case, readers and viewers.
There is something very democratic about political parties seeking a deeper understanding of the lives and attitudes of the electorate to add to instinct, belief and experience. I have never known a policy being decided because of a poll or focus group. But I have known the explanation of a policy being assisted by gaining a deeper assessment of what people are actually saying and thinking. And I’ve known of cases where a decision upon strategic focus is assisted in this way.
There is nothing wrong with that. Leaders have to lead, based upon the beliefs they hold and the policies on which they were elected. But they also have to listen, and to reflect the concerns and aspirations of the people they lead, or seek to lead. I can make a democratic case for modern marketing methods. I can make a patriotic commercial case too. Even small- and medium-sized businesses are subject to the forces of international competition. Building a brand in a global marketplace is something that British companies are very good at. In the era of globalization, that is an advantage to the country as a whole, to be seized at every opportunity.
Of course the United States is dominant in many of these areas. But it is the English language that is the business and marketing language of the world.
In modern communications, there are a range of UK brand names – Vodafone for example – that have more than held their own, not least through their unashamed use of marketing rooted in analysis and technological advance.
In Manchester United, the United Kingdom has arguably the most successful sports-club brand in the world; in David Beckham, the most successful one-man sporting image-maker in the world; in JK Rowling the most successful current writing brand in the world. (Nor should we forget that Shakespeare is the most important writing brand historically, and that in the Beatles and the Rolling Stones Britain has two icons of popular culture whose enduring talent continues to benefit not just their bank balances, but the country’s cultural strength and image too.)
We see the same throughout the arts. In my view, the British military, to give a different kind of example, has adapted well to the media age, and some of the best communications comes from what they do and say, with significant impact upon world standing and recruitment.
These are all things that are good for the country, all very different, but all good in their own way; and all have required, in the broadest sense, modern marketing skills.
Companies such as Burberry, British Airways and Virgin have an impact upon the image of the country of origin beyond the impact upon their own sales and reputation. In the US, the same can be said for Coke, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Boeing, Microsoft and many more. You can argue about whether they are good or bad products, but you cannot argue that they are brands that carry a message for their country. In the car industry, we can wonder whether the strength of Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen doesn’t have something to do with the motor industry being just one area where German marketing skills have been superior.
Finally, I would argue, Blair and New Labour have extended our political reach beyond our size and power as a nation. In Britain, this debate should be helped at the political level by Lord Saatchi’s appointment as a Conservative Party co-chairman.
It won’t be easy for the Conservatives to make such a fuss about spin now that one of its inventors is in charge. In any event, Saatchi was right when he said his party had to overcome the two myths – that soundbites and focus groups are wrong.
“If you can’t reduce your argument to a few crisp words or phrases it probably means there is something wrong with your argument,” he said.
That brings me to perhaps the most important thing I have learned in nine years working for Blair. It is that strategy is more important than tactics, and that values are more important than method.
Strategic message is vital to any government, any government department, any major organization, any person or company that is constantly being defined in the public eye.
It is a lot harder than people think. It requires the difficult and often painful discussions to strip away the possibly relevant from the absolutely central. It becomes the rock you cling to in times of crisis and difficulty. Whatever business you’re in, you require a central purpose, and it needs to be understood within and without the organization.
That’s why – for me – the slogan “New Labour, New Britain” remains the best piece of strategic communication we ever did. Why does all this matter? Because in the marketplace I have described we are in a constant battle for attention and support that will assist the process of change.
Politics is never static. The media age has made it even less so. We have to create change or change will be created for us on someone else’s terms.
That’s how companies have to operate vis-à-vis their competition. That’s how we have to operate vis-à-vis other parties, political trends or ideas, or the media in a battle for the agenda.
This is about more than winning elections or leading in polls. The government’s starting point is that it wants to effect political change for the better. Whatever motives its opponents apply, everything flows from that.
And a central foundation stone of change is communication with the public. Opponents of the government try to demean the legitimacy of its communication so that the only true voice becomes one raised against it.
Politicians must reframe this debate, legitimize communications, emphasize the basic democracy that underpins it, set the terms of the debate in values and in long-term challenges that require long-term strategies. If you want to put through changes, it is easier if people understand and support what you are trying to do over time.
It means taking the lead in generating more open and honest debate. It means making clear that government, like life, is difficult and complex. It means taking people into your confidence about difficult choices and judgements. It means under-promising and over-delivering. It means being patient. It means setting strategies and sticking to them, whatever events may throw your way. It means rooting your message and strategy in reality and trusting people, over time, to get to the substance, to hear you through the noise.
This is the most difficult paradox of modern government. Every big decision, and often every trivial development, is analysed endlessly through the short-term prism of tomorrow’s newspapers or tonight’s TV studio discussion.
But the papers and the discussions come and go, while the impact of the big decisions will linger. So your strategy, together with your ability to develop and deliver it against this noisy background, is what really matters.
What are you really about? What are you really trying to say – as a whole and in each area of policy? These are the key questions, and the answers drive your communications. In government, it is hard because so many things can come along unexpectedly and knock you sideways. But get the message strategy right and you’re in good shape when the crises come. The same approach applies to any major organization.
Politics needs to market itself better. It means making the basic case that nothing really important will change for the better without it. It means challenging the media’s cynicism more effectively. It means making the link better between politics as it is practised and the political issues that young people care about, so that we address the fear of a generation growing up thinking that it is cool not to vote.
Having been on both sides of the fence, I will make the case for politics and politicians. I have seen the good that politics can do, not just in winning, but in the things that a New Labour government has used its victories for: economic and social policies that have led to more people in work; schools and hospitals improving; fewer people in poverty; society strengthening; a radical agenda for constitutional modernization; the prospect of lasting peace in Northern Ireland; as well as an engaged foreign and aid policy.
But politics needs to stand up for itself. Modern politics cannot stand aside from discussions about the media and marketing. It must be at the heart of them, leading them, understanding their importance – not just for our future economic health, but for our future democratic health too.
Alastair Campbell spent more than 10 years as a reporter, political correspondent, political editor and columnist with various daily and weekly newspapers in the UK before being appointed press secretary to Tony Blair, then leader of the opposition, in 1994. After the general election in 1997, he became chief press secretary to the prime minister and the prime minister’s official spokesman. From 2001 to 2003 he was director of communications and strategy in the prime minister’s office.