The message is central: government comms in a post-Covid world

GUEST POST: Eliot Wilson is Co-Founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons Clerk. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Only the most loyal and optimistic Downing Street hanger-on would now argue that the Government has had ‘a good war’ when it comes to the media handling of the pandemic. The failings of the Number 10 operation and the Government Communication Service more widely have been laid painfully bare almost day by day: confusion, changing vocabulary, unclear advice and an inconsistent cast. For every unexpected star like Professor Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy Chief Medical Officer, there has been a Priti Patel, announcing proudly that shoplifting has fallen while retail has been largely closed for business.

In any event, Number 10 has decided to respond to this series of failures, and has hit upon a structural review. The Government’s media operation will be centralised in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, and the daily briefings, deemed by some a success – “event TV” was one phrase I have heard – will be built upon. Most excitingly, for a media built on the cultivation of personality, there will be an “experienced broadcaster” selected to present these briefings, who will be the face of the Government to many people. It will be a political appointment, and insiders say they would like a woman to get the job.

This is obviously a potential revolution in how the government communicates. If the briefings are televised, even if only in highlights, and feature heavily as soundbites on the news of the day (and they will), the new ‘spokesperson’ will, after the Prime Minister, be probably the most recognisable person in the administration, certainly the one with the most airtime. She (let’s assume Downing Street has its wish) will be in charge of media relations, with a powerful influence over the news agenda on a daily, if not hourly, basis, but she will also have a direct line of communication with the voting public. That is a hugely powerful platform.

Critics have already dismissed this move as ‘presidential’ and an Americanised gimmick. That’s hardly a vote of confidence to look at the hapless succession of White House press secretaries in recent years – Sean Spicer? Sarah Huckabee? The scrappy-but-ineffectual incumbent, Kayleigh McEnany? – and, while handsomely paid, they have not lasted nor had much influence.

The brightest star was Anthony Scaramucci, director of communications for all of 11 days (and with whom I have worked a little). The Mooch is a different kettle of fish: voluble, outgoing, eccentric; self-made, self-assured and self-confident. He was too big, too outrageous, a beast to be kept in the Trump circus for long. Personally – I found – he is affable, courteous and charming, but too quickly he was the message and not the medium. He is now one of the president’s most avowed and entrenched opponents on the Republican side of the aisle.

Traditionalists in the UK dislike the bright clothes and snowy-white teeth of American political staffers, and dismiss them as lightweights. By their logic, as on the Potomac, so by the Thames. Maybe, maybe not. It is perfectly conceivable that the Government might find a respected and serious media figure with genuine heft: the mighty Emily Maitlis might not be ideologically simpatico but would be a formidable hire, Fiona Bruce and Victoria Derbyshire both have impressive CVs and skills, and one can imagine Sophie Raworth or Kirsty Wark ably controlling a rowdy press pack. So we should not write this off ad hominem (or ad feminam).

What should concern people is the structural change in the way the Government speaks to people. If there is a single figure with a daily communion with millions of voters, what does that say about the supposedly inviolable practice of ministers making statements in Parliament, to which they are accountable? How much more comfortable would HMG be delivering brightly wrapped nuggets of good news to a selected audience than have a member of the Cabinet slog through an hour of questions from Members of Parliament after an oral statement?

And how far does influence run both ways? Would this new spokesperson begin to be involved in the creation and shaping of policy as well as its presentation and delivery? Good PR practice says that your comms team should be engaged right from the beginning, able to contribute to a project as part of an organic whole. Is the same true for Whitehall? Would the new figure sit ion on policy-shaping meetings, advising from the outset what might and might not ‘fly’? That would be a major point of interest for Whitehall scrutineers like the excellent Institute for Government.

No-one with any experience in public relations or comms would say the Government’s media operation is flawless. It’s arguably not even very good, and some hard thinking (and new hires) are almost certainly needed. But that doesn’t make any change the right change. This idea of centralisation round a new figurehead would make me uneasy if I were a civil servant, a MP or a journalist. Be careful what you wish for.

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This piece was written for The Telegraph.

Has BoJo lost his mojo? No, and he’s shovel-ready

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications

It’s been almost a year since members elected Boris Johnson as Leader of the Conservative Party and British Prime Minister, and six months since he won a personal mandate from the country – and a stonking majority at that! How is he performing? This piece looks at some of the highs and lows, as well as the future ahead.

The highs

I deal in facts not fiction, so let’s start with the polls. Last December, the UK returned a Tory-led government for the fourth time in a decade: a 44% share of the vote (14m ballots) won him 365 seats* – a Conservative MP for each day of the Gregorian calendar. Today, according to Politico’s Poll of Polls, public support for the ‘People’s Government’ is holding firm.

What’s he achieved vs what did he guarantee? A week after that seismic result in 2019, the Government published its Queen’s Speech, outlining the ‘People’s Priorities.’ Chief among them was Mr Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done in January” [2020], which he quickly did. Michael Gove recently confirmed that the UK will “neither accept nor seek any extension to the Transition Period.”

“Extra funding for the NHS” has been enshrined in law and the number of new nurses has increased compared to last year.

Over 3,000 of his “20,000 more police” have been recruited and Robert Buckland has brought about “tougher sentences for criminals”, including the most serious terrorist offenders. “An Australian-style points-based system to control immigration”, as part of a much broader Bill, is due to have its report stage and third reading.

It’s true that millions more have been “invested…in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure,” and that good progress – new consultations and plans to increase investment – has been made towards “Reaching Net Zero by 2050.” All this while not raising “the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance.”

The lows

Britain has been transformed by the coronavirus crisis. The number of GP surgery appointments per annum is likely to be down, not up. 310,000 people, including the Prime Minister and Matt Hancock, have tested positive for the disease. Of those, sadly, 43,500 have died – one of the highest figures in the world. It’s inevitable that there will be, and it’s right that – in time – there is, an inquiry. Lessons must be learned.

Because of Covid-19 – and the measures this government has introduced to combat it – UK public debt has “exceeded 100% of GDP for the first time since 1963.”

The death of George Floyd sparked many protests abroad and at home. A minority of people, on both ends of the spectrum, including Antifa, exploited Black Lives Matter, to behave quite irresponsibly. Our politicians have a vital role to play in healing divisions and addressing issues, which is why I – and others – were surprised it took Mr Johnson – the author of a book about his hero – time to speak out.

Number 10’s handling of these events has created a perception – among backbenchers and commentators – that the Prime Minister has misplaced his mojo.

An analysis

So, some clear wins (promises made, promises kept) and some evident challenges, but challenges that can be overcome with a bold and ambitious plan. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.

And yet, if you spend your time talking to Londoners, following the mainstream media and scrolling through Twitter, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Government was about to collapse at any given moment – that Sir Keir Starmer, by asking a couple of questions each Wednesday and by sacking Rebecca Wrong-Daily, is about to gain 120 seats for Labour. The mountain’s too high to climb.

These are the same people who: predicted Remain would win the Brexit referendum by a landslide, never imagined Donald J. Trump would become US President and thought Jeremy Corbyn might actually win in 2017 (and two years later). The same people who were confident Priti Patel would resign and Dominic Cummings would be fired, and tweet #WhereisBoris on a nearly daily basis.

That said, 44% can be improved upon and regardless of whether there’s any truth in it – perceptions are hard to shake-off. And so, the Government must listen. In particular, No10 must listen to its backbenchers. They are ideally placed to feedback on any disillusionment across the country, before decisions are made. A new liaison between No10 and the Parliamentary Party should be hired.

In my opinion, the appointment would help the Government make sound policy decisions from the get-go and reduce the number of U-turns in the long-run. However, U-turns aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Like subpoenas (writs “commanding a person designated in it to appear in court under a penalty for failure”), they needn’t be seen as negative – rather a means of making right.

This government should also listen to experienced conservatives in communications. We recently polled our supporters and they rated its coronavirus communications strategy 3.18 out of 5. While positive, it’s clear improvements can be made. First-up, was phasing out daily press briefings, which I’m glad it has done. I’d also like to see more women MPs around the Cabinet table at the next reshuffle.

What we need to hear from Mr Johnson tomorrow, in Dudley, is how he’s going to help Britain rebuild itself and win again after the lockdown. I hope he makes us feel proud about our identity and culture and that his vision is aspirational and opportunistic. The British people have put their faith in him before – a few for the first time – and I’m sure they’ll continue to keep it, if he listens and acts accordingly.

*Election data

 2010201520172019
Votes (000s)10,70411,30013,63713,966
% of UK vote36.136.842.343.6
Seats won 306 330 317 365
% of seats won47.150.848.856.2

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for our website and has been republished by Politicalite (June 29, 2020).

We’re optimistic about the future, but the MSM must up its game

A survey conducted by Conservatives in Communications (CiC), the independent and informal industry network for over 435 professionals, reveals that its supporters are optimistic about the future of the sector (7.24 out of 10), with 99% in employment. The positive findings come as the Government looks to ease lockdown measures in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. This in spite of 62% feeling that the mainstream media (MSM) is not providing balanced and unbiased reporting. Bloomberg and the BBC ranked as the most trustworthy news brands while Al Jazeera and Russia Today ranked as the least trustworthy.

The group, which is marking one year since it was relaunched by its chair Katie Perrior and principal director Adam Honeysett-Watts, has been encouraging supporters – including 23 parliamentary patrons – to take part in its inaugural Census 2020. In addition to its industry patrons, a new tier of Tory peers and MPs – who have previously worked or have an interest in communications (public affairs, PR, policy, digital, marketing, events, journalism or publishing) – have recently signed-up. The team has also been widened to build out its offering to young conservatives and to get more women involved.

Survey respondents were largely positive about the Government’s original ‘Stay home’ message (4.49 out of 5). They scored all nine aspects of the daily press briefings, such as stage management and inviting the public to submit their questions, as effective; with the Chancellor of the Exchequer recognised as the most impressive performer. That said, there is little appetite for the conferences to become a permanent fixture. Further, supporters were invited to submit ideas for a new slogan or comment on the ‘Stay alert’ message. Of those who did, 69% proposed an alternative, which may have contributed to a lower score of 3.18 out of 5 for the Government’s overall strategy.

Turning to other topics. While 73% of participants benefited from flexible working and / or working from home (WFH) before the pandemic began, 90% will be advocating for this post-lockdown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, supporters do not miss commuting to and from work (77%), and many used this available time to spend with the family and to ‘think’ more about their work. Professionals have adapted quite well to the changes with 44% saying they have been more productive, especially when it comes to producing written materials for both internal and external clients. 42% said they’re more active while 41% have reallocated earnings.

Katie Perrior, Chair of iNHouse Communications and a former Director of Communications at Number 10, said:

“Our supporters have risen to the challenges posed by the country’s response to the global pandemic. That aside, we’re a people industry – our successes are built on networking and relationships. Although the many technologies – for example, Microsoft Teams and Zoom – have worked much better than expected, they are no substitute for face-to-face. Survey respondents cited less time with colleagues (60%) and friends (45%) as reasons they like least about WFH. I too, look forward to seeing my colleagues and clients as well as family and friends, in-person, very soon.”

Adam Honeysett-Watts said:

“We spotted an opportunity to relaunch and grow CiC into a more dynamic, proactive, diverse and transparent resource, and the pandemic has shown how much one is needed. While industry networking is the main reason our supporters joined us and continue to be involved, there is appetite for us to offer more. That includes advertising job opportunities (63%), sharing industry news (61%), connecting with our parliamentary patrons (59%), widening blog content (55%) as well as offering careers advice and mentoring opportunities (50%). Many of these are already in the works, including the latter, where 72% of supporters cited interest in being mentors.”

Note to Editors

You can learn more about the survey and access all of the results here.

As covered by PRWeek.