The Bigotgate Blunder

Gordon Brown’s “bigotgate” blunder yesterday was a PR mistake in another way, too.
Modern political PR operators have lost their nerve. They have become control freaks, obsessed with managing away every hint of risk from their candidates’ daily schedules. ”Ordinary” members of the public are wheeled up, carefully selected for their doglike devotion to Party and Candidate. They receive their pat on the head, they wag their tails and off they go.
The Prime Minister’s reaction yesterday when he found himself actually talking to a real member of the public (albeit a lifelong supporter of his Party) was as interesting as it was startling. The fact is that his discussion with Gillian Duffy had been far from the “disaster” that he thought. Yes, she had raised a list of concerns. But he had answered well, listening courteously, talking kindly and with sympathy, and setting out his case with effective clarity. He had looked good. Mrs Duffy’s gentle challenges provided him with hugely more opportunity to express himself than a dozen hand picked sycophants would ever have done.
But so sheltered has he become from the realities of real voter contact that this brief exchange felt to him like a “disaster”. He was wrong. And his minders were wrong, just as most political minders are wrong. They need courage. They need to believe in themselves. Great politicians are risk takers. Successful risk takers. And that’s how they rise above the crowd. No half-decent politician should ever be afraid of contact with the public. This is their real chance to perform. It was only when the “grey man” of British politics, John Major, dragged out his soap box and stood on street corners taking on all comers that he was able to turn around an unwinnable election. This election’s so tight, a well-judged throw of the dice might just change history. But I’m not sure modern politicians have the guts or the instinct for that kind of risk taking. Sometimes, though, if you try too hard not to lose, you can forget how to win.
Terence Fane-Saunders

How to counter Clegg

God, what a wonderfully gripping election campaign this has become. Even before the Leaders’ debates, it was full of fascination and intrigue . For once we actually had real policy differences . Should there be a National Insurance hike? Should we delay the budget cuts? And, as if selected by Central Casting, we had two party leaders who could hardly have seemed less alike. The glowering, fearsome bull and the smooth, twinkle toed matador. But, on this occasion there was real uncertainty over whose blood would be soaking the sand of the Plaza de Toros when the bullfight was done. We were all pulling the blankets up to our chins and settling down to enjoy the spectacle.
Then the Clegg bombshell. Well, perhaps not a bombshell in terms of surprise, (and I speak with the smug and irritating tone of a man who took full advantage of the bookies’ generous offering of 9/4 to back Nick Clegg in the first debate). It was always going to happen. Opinion poll after opinion poll in recent months has told us what any thinking person already knew. The public are fed up with the political establishment, sickened by what they see as its arrogance, greed, incompetence and, often, sheer petty nastiness. They wanted Clegg to win. Rightly or wrongly, they don’t see Clegg and his party as part of that world of sleaze and dishonesty. He could have stood on one leg reciting Eskimo Nell and half the people polled would have put their tick in his box. In fact, he performed smoothly and capably, avoiding obvious pitfalls and happily allowing his two opponents to set about the business of making each other look bad. (In fact, the Prime Minister needed little help. I have praised the Labour spinners in the past. But whoever told their Leader to turn aggressivc in the debates simply doesn’t understand what the country wants to see. Britain is now Love Actually Land. We don’t do nasty).
So, now some opinion polls actually have the Lib Dems in the lead! So what does this mean for British politics? Have the Libs “gone viral”? Should we be preparing ourselves for the reign of King Clegg?
Um. No.
Of course we are in the world of “Anything’s possible” now. And only an idiot will speak in absolutes. But the fact is, this is not a presidential election. Immediately after the debate, people felt inclined to give their vote to that nice Nick Clegg. And yes, they have a soft spot for Vince Cable, who could make a perfect Joe Biden to Clegg’s Obama. But that’s not the way our political system works. When it comes to the actual election day and they realise that Nick Clegg is not standing in their constituency, and their man (or woman) is still there in a distant third place, then reluctantly, bitterly, as they have before, they’ll shift their vote to whichever they dislike least of Labour and Tory, to keep the other one out.
Not everywhere, of course. And I do expect to see a storming improvement in the Lib Dem vote, and in their number of seats. But we are still , I believe, a long way from a Lib Dem government. And, I rather think that this improvement in their position will come mostly at the expense of Labour, splitting the anti Tory vote, though that advantage will be fairly marginal.
But what’s to be done? how can the “big two” resist the Lib Dem surge? How can they counter Clegg?
First, they must resist the temptation to “go after” Clegg. The public doesn’t want that. The polls immediately after the first debate showed that Gordon Brown lost votes every time he went on the attack. The Labour leader doesn’t need to convince anyone that he can be harsh, negative, aggressive, angry . In fact, it’s because they believe he’s so many of these things that great swathes of the British public have turned against him. Kicking Clegg is like kicking kittens. Don’t do it Gordon. It won’t look good.
Labour have to be careful about playing the “experience” card against the Lib Dems, too. When I first met Vince Cable it was at one of our Chelgate client dinners. He was there not as a politicians, but as one of the most able minds in the whole of Shell. His experience in business and the true realities of real-life economics would look pretty impressive matched up against almost any of the professional politicians on the front benches of the other two parties. If they want to talk of real experience, he can say, he has it. But, in truth, do they?
David Cameron has to be equally careful. His image constantly teeters on the brink of being “Bully of the Upper Sixth”. Perhaps Flashman’s best friend. You might imagine him reaching almost too enthusiastically for the cane: “Bend over you nasty little socialist”. As with most political caricatures, neither fair nor accurate , but successfully sketched onto the public consciousness by Labour’s able band of spinners. In some Tory circles there has been a knee-jerk reaction. They want to attack. They want to vent. They want to tell the world just what’s wrong with Clegg and his gang. But that’s carminative thinking. It may relieve pent up feelings. But it will do more damage to David Cameron than to Nick Clegg. Really, in politics, you mustn’t kick kittens.
That’s not to say that Cameron shouldn’t use anger, though. He does it rather well. And in the first debate he seemed disappointingly muted and muzzled. But that anger needs to be directed at injustice, deprivation, suffering. It’s still fine to slay dragons in this country. But not kittens.
So , if they can’t attack. what can they do? Certainly not try to smother Clegg with love. Gordon Brown’s overtures during the first debate really sounded a little weak and a little desperate. I’m told that “I agree with Nick” T-shirts were on sale on-line within minutes of the debate ending.
What Labour and Tories need now is what we call a “Third Voice” strategy. In any polarised debate, the most effective interventions are provided by “third voices”. That is, by third parties who are seen (often wrongly) as independent, or (equally often wrongly) particularly expert in some way. People discount the claims and counter claims of the principal protagonists. “They would say that, wouldn’t they”. So, they are swayed by third voices, whether they are footballers or university professors, pop stars or newspaper editors.
Labour and Conservatives now need to unleash their “third voice” hunting dogs. They must leave it to their hounds to rip the prey apart while the huntsmen stand back with clean hands and faintly shocked expressions. We have already seen the “Third Voice” strategy being deployed in this campaign with the battle of economists. Now it will need to intensify.
The most obvious third voice for either party will be the media who support them. The Sun must look up from savaging Labour at least long enough to chew the life out of the Lib Dems and their policies. The Mirror too must tell its readers about Calamity Clegg and what he would mean to good Labour-voting folk. The same goes for the rest of the Labour or Tory supporting media. They can do what Tory and Labour cannot do, must not be seen to do. They can rip that nice Mr Clegg apart.
It’s time for Gordon and David to unleash the hounds.
Terence Fane-Saunders

Romania at the point of lift-off

In Bucharest for most of last week, visiting Chelgate’s office there. We’re in new offices – our third move in the past five years, and they are a delight. Comfortable, elegant and close to almost everything that matters.
People are often surprised when I say Bucharest is one of my favourite cities. But perhaps the charm of the place is that you have to dig a little to find its beauty and its secrets. But, one early evening, sitting in the sun in the wonderful, restored old town, sipping a glass of cold Ursus beer, I realised that all the people around me were Romanians, enjoying the rediscovered charms of their city. The tourists will come. There is too much beauty and too much fun in the city for them to stay away much longer. And they’ll spread across the country, to the ski resorts or the lakes, then swarming through the unspoiled, astonishing beauty of exquisite ancient towns like Sibiu and Brasov. But they are not there yet, and this is the time to enjoy this extraordinary country.
Perhaps the biggest change since we first opened an office some five years ago has been in the use of English. Back then, fluent English speakers were very, very rare. Now it seems to be easier to find an English speaker in a bar, shop or restaurant in Bucharest than it would be in Paris. (Not, of course, that this is saying a great deal!). And business meetings seldom need an interpreter any more. The nightlife, too, has seen a transformation. Six years ago, the best restaurant in town was a grim, post-Ceauşescu hotel dining room, with a sad faced waiter wearing a soup stained shirt. Today, you can discover wonderful restaurants all over town, tucked away in back streets, nestling in cobbled squares, often giving new life to one of the crumbling and ornate old mansions that are so much part of the charm of Bucharest. On all sides, too, elegant bars and clubs are opening up, filled with live music and cheerful customers. We had an almost perfect evening at the Arts Jazz Club, tucked away behind the Senate House, listening to legendary American bassist Ari Roland and his quartet. In June Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood hit town. Ceauşescu really is very, very dead.
But as this new member of the European Union begins to look to the world around it, there is a recognition that not all is right with the country’s international image. Here is a country with a bright, highly educated, hard working population, where wage costs are low, and the workforce is committed and hungry to succeed. And membership of the European Union has made available billions of euros in structural funds, helping move Romania into the 21st century. Yet international investors are not (yet) beating a path to the Romanian door. Everyone knows, and everyone will tell you, Romania has an image problem.
For a couple of years now a heated debate has been raging in the PR world of Romania about the “re-branding” of the country. But the truth is that Romania isn’t ready for rebranding yet. First, before you even think about brand, you need to think about the product. And as yet, the product isn’t right. The problem of corruption is not just an image problem. It remains a sour reality, contaminating huge areas of commercial life. And that fact frightens away investors and partners who should be eagerly pouring into Romania by now. Government bureaucracy, too, remains a real obstacle. While the private sector has been moving ahead vigorously, improving its skills, sharpening its competitiveness, all too many government departments seem stuck in the last century, or earlier: inefficient, lethargic, under-skilled and under-qualified, sometimes corrupt, often dishonest. The good news , though, is that this is changing. A growing number of ministries and departments are seeing a real transformation, led by bright, well-qualified professionals with genuine integrity and a real vision of where their country needs to be heading. And the national leadership recognises the problem, too. Gradually, the corrupt, the inefficient and the ineffectual are being squeezed out of the system. Romania is very nearly ready for “lift-off”.
For Chelgate in Romania this is an exciting and rewarding time. More and more international businesses are exploring the opportunities offered by this new market. And they realise that they’ll need PR help from the outset. Not just in media relations. Not just in planning events and promotions. But also community and cultural relations. And perhaps above all, in Government Relations, at all levels, where they need to be very sure about the integrity and professionalism of the service they are employing.
But, for myself, I simply can’t wait to be back in the Arts Jazz Club, clutching my ice cold Ursus beer.
Terence Fane-Saunders