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.

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

This piece was written for The Telegraph.

How we’ll support female Tories in Comms

Katie Perrior is Chair, and Aisha Vance-Cuthbert and Laura Dunn are co-Directors of Conservatives in Communications

Once again, thank you for your continued support and to those who participated in the CiC Census 2020. The anonoymised and aggregated data is a helpful guide for everyone concerned.

As a reminder, we invited all supporters to weigh in and we received a strong response. In particular, we polled gender (25% of respondents are female) and invited everyone to suggest how we should get more women involved. We received plenty of comments (125 in total!), including some constructive feedback and ideas. We read each and every one.

Responsibilities

Before we get underway, let’s remind ourselves about our group: Tories in Comms is an independent, voluntary and informal industry network for conservatives who work in our sector. While we have a role to play and take our responsibilities seriously, there are others who must take the lead.

For example, while it’s great that just over half of all MPs elected in 2019 were Conservative (365 of 650), it’s also disappointing that – just like our base – only one quarter of them are women (87 of 365). The Party must do more to improve this, and outfits such as the Conservative Women’s Organisation and Women2Win continue to play an important role.

Women are under-represented as senior leaders within the worlds of PR and PA. Other groups, such as Women in PA and Women in PR agree, and they too continue to make a difference; though businesses must do even more.

In a similar vein, the Party, businesses and network must do more to ensure the membership, workforce and base are ethnically diverse.

Let’s look at how we can improve things.

Us and you

Our core team is 50% female, including our chair and two directors. Laura is our women’s lead while Finley Morris is our lead on young people, including, yes, young women. Men have a role to play in encouraging gender parity.

We will continue to advertise all volunteer positions in our newsletter as well as on our website and social media.

Partners

There are several organisations doing an excellent job to encourage female participation. We don’t want to duplicate efforts, rather promote each other’s respective work.

Today, we’ve agreed to work closely with Women2Win and Women in PA, and we look forward to working together on future events and content. You will find them highlighted on our website.

Events

Historically, our group was 100% focused on networking and there was a preference for after-work drink receptions. For the past 12 months, we’ve continued down that path with events on Wednesdays, 6-8pm. However, we recognise that format doesn’t suit everybody, especially women with children and/or those based outside London, and therefore we commit to hosting breakfast and lunch events. We will also look to vary our guest speakers and topics and virtual events. Where we can meet in-person, name tags will also be provided, and we’ll do whatever we can to make all our events welcoming and inclusive. While our Summer Reception has been cancelled and Conservative Party Conference is unlikely to go ahead as planned, we’ll do our very best to host face-to-face events soon.

Speakers

Our commitment to female involvement has been there from the get-go. All three of our most recent events since our relaunch featured women: Lord Black hosted a Q&A with Katie, Kulveer Ranger hosted a Q&A with the Home Secretary Priti Patel MP and Katie chaired a panel on the 2019 election. We will continue to invite high profile women, including our parliamentary patrons like Baroness McIntosh as well as MPs Esther McVey, Joy Morrissey, Nickie Aiken, Siobhan Baillie and Theo Clarke, and we commit to having at least one female speaker at every CiC event.

Content

All supporters are invited to submit content for our newsletter, and to be promoted on our website and social media, and we really encourage you to do so especially if you have something to add on this issue.

Mentoring and profiling

Almost three quarters of survey respondents are interested in becoming a mentor while two thirds are looking for a mentor. Throughout 2020, we will profile our female supporters. Watch this space for details of both of these ideas.

Promotion

We don’t assume people know about Tories in Comms, so we’ll continue to promote the group, by partnering with organisations and leveraging social media.

We also encourage every supporter to invite one female friend or colleague to sign-up to the network and attend an event.

OUR 12-POINT PLAN

  1. We will advertise all volunteer positions
  2. We will work with our partners on events and content
  3. We will host both breakfast and lunch events
  4. We will vary up both speakers and topics
  5. We will use nametags at events going forward
  6. We will ensure our events are both welcoming and inclusive
  7. We will continue to invite high profile women
  8. We will strive for at least one female speaker per industry event
  9. We will encourage women to submit content for our newsletter
  10. We will launch our mentoring scheme
  11. We will do more to promote the network and supporters
  12. We will encourage supporters to encourage others to sign-up.

Our commitment is real, but we cannot do this on our own, so whether it’s encouraging your female friends and colleagues to join us or writing a piece for our e-newsletter, please do get involved. A final note to all our male supporters – thank you for everything you do which helps us progress and succeed. We’re fully aware that most of our career progression has been through decisions made by men and while we want to see more females in these leadership roles, we’re thankful for that support from our male colleagues over the years.

Tories in Comms marks first anniversary since relaunch

Invites supporters to complete inaugural survey, including reaction to Covid-19 strategy

Conservatives in Communications (CiC), the independent and informal industry network for professionals, marks one year since the group was relaunched.

The network now boasts almost 400 supporters from a variety of backgrounds. Iain Anderson and Kulveer Ranger are among those providing business expertise as industry patrons, while circa 20 peers and MPs – largely from the 2010, 2015 and 2019 intakes – form a new tier of parliamentary patrons who represent a number of different interests.

Katie Perrior, chair of iNHouse Communications and a former Director of Communications at No.10, remains as figurehead of the group. Adam Honeysett-Watts – with the support of Aisha Vance-Cuthbert and Alec Zetter – manage day-to-day operations. Finley Morris was recently brought on to develop and drive its dedicated youth effort.

The network has organised a number of events in Westminster and off Fleet Street, including a Q&A with the Home Secretary Priti Patel MP and a panel discussion about lessons learned from the general election campaign, featuring Sir Robbie Gibb, Professor Matthew Goodwin and Paul Goodman of ConservativeHome.com. BECG, Ellwood Atfield and Kekst CNC sponsored them.

In addition, the group has an active industry blog and circulates regular e-newsletters; the latest of which encourages supporters to participate in its inaugural survey: Conservatives in Communications (CiC) Census 2020. The census is being billed as a “once-a-year opportunity to provide feedback, so we can better serve you and add more value going forward.”

The survey comes at a critical time for the industry as professionals get to grip with Covid-19. It includes questions about the government’s communications strategy, current and future slogans, highly rated Cabinet ministers, future televised press briefings, trustworthiness of the media, flexible working and work from home (WFH) schemes, and an optimism tracker.

Adam Honeysett-Watts, Principal Director, said:

“We’ve made good progress towards our mission to be a more dynamic, proactive, diverse and transparent industry resource. That said, there is much more we could and should be doing – when it comes to getting more women involved – so, we look forward to analysing the results, determining priorities and acting on them over the next year.”

For more information, including how to sign-up for events, email us. The findings are expected to be published in late May.

On getting more women involved

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director of Conservatives in Communications

I’m biased towards women. There, I said it.

Some of the best people I’ve worked with are women. Some of the best people I’ve hired are women. Some of the best people who’ve managed me are women. Some of the best people I’ve campaigned for are women and, some of my best moments include developing networks* for women.

You’ll find great women throughout the history books. Take The Dream of Rome by Boris Johnson for instance. Here, he discusses how the Roman Empire achieved political and cultural unity in Europe, and compares it to the failure of the European Union to do the same. We’re introduced to one of the most prominent women in Rome’s history : Octavia the Younger (69–11 BC) was the sister of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, and the fourth wife of Mark Antony – who had an affair with Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt. She became a political adviser and negotiator between her husband and brother, and was respected and admired by contemporaries for her loyalty to Rome.

Fast forward two millennia and travel two thousand kilometres to when and where another woman had risen to the top. The Leader of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher, was the first woman to be elected Prime Minister in the UK. During the 1975 Tory leadership election, she famously said this:

If you want anything done, ask a woman.

Now, I’m not going to argue with the Iron Lady! Last year, when I spotted an opportunity I worked with two women to get it done: Carol Freeman and I persuaded a former director of communications at No.10, Katie Perrior, to chair the network we wanted to relaunch – whose mission includes being more diverse. And, when Carol moved her family to the West Coast, I asked Aisha Vance-Cuthbert to step up.

Over 12 months, we’ve rebuilt Conservatives in Communications to almost 400 professionals, including 19 parliamentary patrons like Joy Morrissey, Nickie Aiken, Siobhan Baillie and Theo Clarke. We’ve hosted three events, including one with the Home Secretary Priti Patel. And, we’ve tasked individuals with establishing effective ways to improve diversity among our ranks.

That said, as of writing this, I guestimate only a quarter of our supporters are women. It’s clear to me and the whole team that we could and should be doing more – as a sector and a network – to encourage greater participation.

Next week, we will launch our inaugural survey – Conservatives in Communications (CiC) Census 2020 – an opportunity for supporters to give constructive feedback and make suggestions anonymously. I hope supporters take advantage of this, because, together, we can and will make a difference.

I look forward to seeing the final results and reading your comments, and to implementing the proposed recommendations. As a former board member, and adviser to the president, of UN Women UK, I’m going to practice what I preached then about equality and continue to encourage all genders to partake as agents of change.

* UN Women UK, DTCC Women’s Network in London and Conservatives in Communications

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

This piece was written for our website. I’ve opened up the comments section.

Events, dear boy, events

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

The unpredictability of politics was perhaps best described by Harold Macmillan as the sudden appearance of “Events, dear boy, events”. Although nobody – including his biographer – has been able to trace back to when he said that!

As the first quarter of 2020 has shown, the UK government has had to respond to ‘events’ rather than push on with other priorities. First came the storms (Brendan, Ciara, Dennis and Jorge) that caused travel disruption, flooding and damage to infrastructure. Next were sustained attacks on the Home Secretary – from the Left, disgruntled civil servants and some in the media, including that ghastly cartoon in The Guardian. But nothing, nothing could quite trump Coronavirus and its dominance in the national conversation. At work, you will hear colleagues singing the national anthem or happy birthday (twice) or counting to 20 – while washing their hands. At home, some family members are ‘self-isolating’ having stock-piled enough paracetamol, pasta and toilet roll to last them a lifetime.

Pesky things, these events. So far, the prime minister and his team have weathered them all. What’s next, I hear you ask? Only one of the biggest events in the parliamentary calendar and the first for more than a year.

Several weeks ago, Rishi Sunak had no idea he would be replacing Sajid Javid as the country’s second BME Chancellor and delivering a Budget this Wednesday. Nor could he have envisaged ‘Black Monday’, which saw some of the biggest daily stock market drops since the 2008 global financial crisis and trading in US shares briefly suspended.

Thankfully, his closeness to Number 10 – he was Boris Johnson’s stand-in for one of the TV debates – as well as his time in financial services (Goldman Sachs and The Children’s Investment Fund Management) and more recently as Chief Secretary to the Treasury means he has both the support from the top and the experience to deliver the goods against economic uncertainty. The question is how radical can and does the Chancellor want to be in reshaping the UK’s economy?

My suspicion is he does but he can’t do everything this time; with the more dramatic measures postponed until either the Spending Review or Autumn Statement. Speaking on The Today Programme about the Budget, George Osborne said the government needs to “vaccinate the economy”. He is probably right.

Just look at what has been pre-briefed: 2020 will be the last year that women are taxed on sanitary products plus there is double funding for flood defences, employment tax breaks for veterans and £8 million for football pitches. All of these make sense to me and I’m certain will be welcomed by those affected, but they are hardly earth-shattering. I hope – and anticipate – there will be much more on the levelling-up agenda, as expectations of this government – from all quarters, but especially blue-collar workers – are very high; more so, as it’s been the longest gap between budgets since the 19th century.

It is customary for the Chairman of Ways & Means to chair the debate on the Chancellor’s Budget. I look forward to being in the chamber to see Dame Eleanor Laing – the first woman to hold that post – on this historic event, during Women’s History Month.

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 (‘Events, dear boy, events’ – March 11, 2020).

It’s time to act – and talk – tough

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

Last Tuesday, I was helping Dame Eleanor Laing – and her campaign to become Chairman of Ways & Means – when I was alerted about a stabbing close to Kennington tube station. For context, this is a stone’s throw away from where I live and where I had exited just moments earlier.

It’s one thing to learn about these stories in the news and on Twitter, and quite another to hear about them taking place in your backyard! This got me to thinking about other events and incidents in 2019; a year that was memorable for many reasons: some good, others not.

The death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria by US forces, the resignation of John Bercow as Commons Speaker and the election victories of Scott Morrison in Australia and Boris Johnson were very good outcomes. 

The same cannot be said of the fire that destroyed the roof of Notre-Dame de Paris and the bombs on Easter Day in Sri Lanka that killed more than 250 people, the unprecedented floods in Venice and the murders of two innocents by an Islamist terrorist on London Bridge. Sadly, they weren’t alone:

  • The number of homicides in our great capital is at its highest in a decade and most of these victims were stabbed to death with knives
  • The number of children known to have been sexually groomed in the UK reached nearly 19,000 – that is five times higher than just five years ago
  • The number of migrants attempting to enter the UK illegally by crossing the English Channel rose by 400% over 2018.

I’m no policy expert – I’ll leave that to the SW1 think tanks and others. But it’s quite clear we must do more to address these epidemics – and all opinions must be heard and all ideas should be on the dinner table, including:

  • Londoners want their streets to be safe and their communities to be secure again. This May, voters should boot out Sadiq Khan and elect Shaun Bailey
  • Sajid Javid, the former Home Secretary, launched an inquiry into the ethnic origins of members of grooming gangs. Priti Patel, the new Home Secretary, should publish that report
  • And, without criticizing, she should take a much tougher stance on immigration – like Australia and Italy – by reducing arrivals with much stricter border control and speeding up deportations.

Thousands of migrants have now drowned on European sea crossings. Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott advised EU leaders that “If you want to stop the deaths and if you want to stop the drownings you have got to stop the boats.” He argued that this is the compassionate thing to do.

As Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini certainly heeded that advice. In 2016 and 2017, the numbers of non-European illegals to have landed in Italy were 181,436 and 119,369 respectively. Under his leadership that number fell by 100k. If elected prime minister, expect that number to fall further.

Back home, what can Conservatives in Communications do? We must highlight these types of issues and promote solutions, and support politicians that promise to fix them. We’re about to take back control, by leaving the EU. Let us also take back control, with respect to law and order.

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 The Commentator (‘It’s time to act – and talk – tough on crime’ – January 20, 2020) and Politicalite (‘After Brexit, Britain must act and talk tough’ – February 2, 2020).

Priti decent turn of events

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

Last week, the BBC issued an apology after Andrew Marr accused Home Secretary Priti Patel of laughing during an interview about Brexit. Quite rightly so – because she wasn’t. Shortly after the statement was released, the Conservatives in Communications (CiC) network welcomed the Home Secretary to our autumn reception, which took place at the Ellwood Atfield Gallery in Westminster and was kindly sponsored by Built Environment Communications Group (BECG).

Before she was elected as an MP – and promoted to several roles within Number 10, HM Treasury, DWP and DfID – Patel worked in the communications sector. Her analysis of the current state of play and her advice to the PR industry were therefore of relevance, interest and well-received by the many professionals in the room. As you might expect, much of her fireside chat with Kulveer Ranger, patron and a former advisor to Boris Johnson, focused on delivering Brexit, and the dynamics between the party and Parliament.

Unsurprisingly, these issues continue to dominate the agenda this week. What begun as just a slogan in Manchester – ‘Get Brexit Done’ or ‘Get Brexit Sorted’ to our friends north of the border – has become a shared common purpose that most Tories are united behind. In fact, Patel was keen to point out that the whole of the parliamentary party backed both the second reading and the programme motion on Tuesday. That was some whipping, but also representative of the public’s general angst, clear and disciplined messaging and a determination to move on and forward.

Sadly, while the second reading did – the programme motion didn’t pass in the House, so we are back in limbo; exactly what businesses wanted to avoid. Extra time to debate the deal won’t really change anything. As I’ve written in the past: One constant throughout these past four years has been the failure of the remain and remoan camp to run an effective operation and win enough support. Has anything changed? No. But Johnson is willing to compromise. Opposition parties should vote for the election motion this afternoon. Failing that, MPs should back the election bill on Tuesday.

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

This piece was written for our website.