Thursday, 19 August 2010

A history of the PR age

The importance of press relations in politics is about as original as the ‘new, progressive’ politics of the coalition Government i.e. not very. The rise of PR coincided with the rise of New Labour, and began during the era of Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell.*

Remember cool Britannia? After the dull grey years of John Major, people cottoned on to Tony Blair as a man of the people. Not only did he talk politics, but he looked and did normal stuff like strum an electric guitar (all be it in a suit) and kick a football around. To Alistair Campbell, this was all brilliant, and culminated in Noel Gallagher knocking on No.10 and sipping champagne (“someone get the camera out!”).

The Tories were a little slow to catch on to the idea that they needed a leader who could get down with the ordinary folks. After all, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So it was the turn of William Hague to strut his ‘normal’ stuff. Now Alistair Campbell gets a lot of slack, but at least he could do PR properly. I’m not sure what Hague’s advisers were thinking when they told him it would be a good idea to sit in a log flume in a cap, and to say he drank 14 pints of beer a day. Utter nonsense and the Tories were punished for it (and their ridiculous ‘last chance to save the pound’ campaign) in the 2001 general election.

Everything was hunky-dory for Labour until the Iraq war in 2003. Cool Britannia was denounced and the knives were out for Tony Blair. Alistair Campbell had more important things to do like save Blair’s skin. These were serious times.

When David Cameron was elected as the leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, there was a resurgence in the use of PR in politics. The Tories changed their logo from a blue torch to a tree, Cameron got out his push bike and the message was ‘look at us, we’ve changed, we’re now environmentally friendly’. And PR wasn’t only about promoting one’s self. It became a weapon that the Tories used aggressively against Gordon Brown.

In the run up to the 2010 general election people started analysing whether Gordon Brown was comfortable in front of the camera, and if not, then perhaps we should question his ability to ‘connect’ with the public, and even his ability to lead the country. Unfortunately, this attack was taken seriously enough by Labour to start a backlash. Cameron was often portrayed as a shallow salesman, something Jon Cruddas thought was a mistake. However these slanging matches were a main stay of the 2010 election. Trading personal insults on the ability of a politician to be able to come across ‘well’ in the media, and especially on TV, signalled a new, unpleasant dimension of electioneering. One which is also Blair’s legacy.

*Actually, I lie. It originally started in the US with John F. Kennedy and continued with Ronald Reagan, but that’s a whole new blog we’ll perhaps save for another day.

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