A little application but no confederation

At Chelgate, like most PR firms, we receive a great number of job applications, whether from people looking for internships and work experience, or from others who are keen to take their first steps in a full time career.
It has been very interesting, and a little disheartening, though, to note the real recent decline in the quality of written applications. Sometimes it’s merely a matter of the quality of English. At Chelgate we do, from time to time, take on people whose first language is not English. But they really have to be able to demonstrate that they can function to professional communications standards in this language. The vast majority, judging by their applications, simply cannot.
But more worrying is the decline in the quality of applications from native English speakers. I think I blame e-mail and texts. A new culture seems to have developed which discards care and disdains accuracy. So, applications arrive at Chelgate, rendered almost indecipherable by weirdly random (or entirely missing) punctuation, and riddled throughout with spelling errors, typos and careless mistakes. Very frequently we receive “cut and paste” applications, explaining the applicant’s particular regard for our firm, where they have forgotten to change the name of the company for which they have such high regard. It may seem harsh, but these people don’t even make it to an interview, no matter how well qualified and intelligent they are. My view is that if they are this casual in their communication with us, I cannot expect them to be any more meticulous in their dealings with, or on behalf of our clients. And that’s not acceptable here.
Sometimes we receive applications so appalling that they go into a little file of “treasures”. This week we received one which combined an almost surreal assault on the English language with the kind of careless mistakes which have nothing to do with language skills, and everything to do with character. Here it is (with only personal details removed).
Dear Mr Fane-Saunders,
The work of public relation was when I start to work in this flied, was a men’s world.
Each role that I step into was because as Marilyn Monroe state “I don’t mind living in a man’s world as long as I can be a woman in it.”
In our day, P.R job criteria of are often mixed with communication, press officer or bad marketing.
I have worked long enough as a freelance to now turn toward a reputable firm for full time employment.
After looking at your firm, I just call to inquire about sending a CV and a cover letter.
Kate, a smiley lady over the phone, gave me her email.
I would appreciate any feedback you might have with the regard to my application and will be please to meet with you for further information.
Thank you for your time and confederation.
Yours sincerely
Terence Fane-Saunders

As we were saying…………..

So, we have a coalition government in Britain and the press and the broadcast media are wriggling with pundits, all telling us just what happened and why. Of course, it’s easy enough to be wise after the event. But these are the same pundits who, after the first TV debate, were so wild-eyed and feverish with Cleggmania. The Lib Dems, they told us , were on the verge of displacing Labour as the main opposition. They might even out-poll the Tories. In this, of course, they were aided and abetted by a gaggle of pollsters who understand everything about statistics, and nothing about people.
They should have read the Chelgate Blog. This is what we wrote on April 19th, when Cleggmania was raging unchecked across the land:
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.

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

The Election “a gripping spectacle”

This British election looks like providing a gripping spectacle for anyone in our business. We’re still in the “phoney war” stages, with no election date declared, but the politicians are already in hand-to-hand combat.
There’s no doubt that in these early stages, Labour have comprehensively out-manoevred and out-gunned the Tories, and I have a feeling Peter Mandelson may deserve the credit for that. The Tory communications strategy has certainly looked naive at times, leaden-footed and quite simply, not very bright in comparison.
But, let’s be clear here. I’m not talking about who’s right and who’s wrong. I’m not talking about the honesty or competence of the front bench teams. I’m talking about the ruthless, cynical world of election campaigns. And in that world, good guys don’t always finish first.
One of the most obvious areas of improvement for Labour has been in Prime Minister’s Questions. For month after month, David Cameron had danced around Gordon Brown like a matador addressing a tired and bad tempered old bull. But then, suddenly, it all changed. The strategy was quite simple, really. The Prime Minister stopped answering questions . Instead , he responded to almost every question from the Opposition leader with a crisp and effective sneer at the Tory Party. No matter that it had been cooked up earlier. No matter if it had little or nothing to do with the question. It made an excellent soundbite, and moved the debate from Government failures to Tory inadequacies. His backbenchers loved it. Radio loved it. The headline writers loved it. Suddenly the old slugger was punching again.
Of course the Tories have been unlucky with the timing of the election, as recession gloom has slowly shifted to hesitant hope. But here again, the Labour Party have played the more cunning hand. “There will be pain”, they have told us, jaws jutting and teeth clenching in an honest, manly way. “But don’t worry. It won’t be just yet”. The Tories, meanwhile, have offered pain and suffering the moment they come to power. So, which do the public prefer? It doesn’t take a genius to anticipate that one. The Ipos-Mori poll shows that 57% of people say that cuts now will damage the recovery. Only 30% are wanting immediate action. And given the precarious state of our economy, it really is hard to see the Tories winning public support when their economic strategy is so at odds with the public mood.
The Ashcroft nonsense has also been a triumph for the Labour spinners. Of course the Tories should have seen this coming a long way back, and lanced this particular boil before it was left to poison their election campaign. But the real triumph has been in the Labour spin. We’re not actually talking of an illegal act here. Nor even real corruption. In fact, his offshore status is not so different from Labour’s Lord Paul. And shiftiness over his tax status should surely pale into insignificance compared with the current ghastly Lobbygate squalor. But Labour have been very smart, making reference after reference to Lord Ashcroft while very seldom spelling out the specific offence alleged. Gradually, the power of repetition has started to bite. Nuance, hint and implication have been more than enough. If you stopped the average British voter in the street, and asked him or her what Lord Ashcroft had actually done wrong, the great majority would have no real idea . But they would be clear in their minds that it was probably corrupt, possibly illegal and stinks to high heaven. That’s truly an astonishingly brilliant piece of “black” spin. Through repetition and innuendo, Labour have turned the Ashcroft name into a potent protective mantra, to be chanted with proper fervour any time Labour sleaze is raised. And boy does it work.
The budget made great theatre, too. Darling’s plodding, steady delivery was probably perfect for a Government whose election message, clearly is “always keep a-hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse”. And nurse doesn’t scare you with talk of nasty things. For television viewers, though, the sight of the Prime Minister just behind the Chancellor’s shoulder, scowling, grimacing and leering in such a startling fashion might have been quite a distraction. The PM’s facial expressions might be the next fearsome mountain for the good Lord Mandelson to conquer.
Cameron was all fire, energy and aggression, with a good stock of one-liners, more than one of which appeared to be truly spontaneous. Clearly he wanted to send the message of Tory energy versus Labour exhaustion. But it did seem a little unremitting. The tone never shifting. By the end of his onslaught, the viewer/ listener probably felt as exhausted as the PM looked. I’d vote it a score draw. Say, three all. Or , just possibly the Tories shaded it in extra time, with help from the Lib Dems.
So where from here? The Tory lead is in steep decline. One poll has it as low as 2% which puts us into Labour victory territory. And if you extrapolate the recent trend, you’d actually be inclined to put your money on Labour.
But all is not lost for the Tories. We’re still not into serious campaign mode, and once that starts, the media really come into play. And here the Tories have a serious advantage. Look at the players on each team. The Telegraph for the Tories has a circulation of almost 700 thousand. Labour can expect support from the Guardian and the Independent, but together their circulations don’t break the half million mark. But it looks like the Times (just over half a million) will be backing the Cameron camp, too. So, among the “heavies” the Tories will have a marked advantage, even if the BBC tends slightly to favour any Government in power. But when you look at the mass market media, the imbalance is even more marked. For the middle market, the Tories have the Mail (well over two million) and the Express (almost 800,000). Labour have nothing. Gordon Brown can certainly look to the Mirror (just over 1.2 million) and the Star (800,000 plus) for support. But on the other side, there’s the might of the Sun (almost 3 million circulation) comfortably outstripping the Mirror and Star put together.
As the campaign gathers pace, the these papers (and their Sunday stablemates) are going to move into campaigning mode, and this really will be a huge advantage for the Tories. But don’t under-rate the Labour spinners. If they continue to outperform the Tories over the coming weeks, they’ll negate a lot of that media advantage. We could be in for a photo finish.
Terence Fane-Saunders

Rotten fish

I heard somebody on the radio yesterday trying to talk down the impact of negative media coverage. So, of course, the old chestnut was hauled out: “Today’s newspaper headlines are tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers”.
Yes, of course, that used to be the case. Time buried most scandals. And the strategy for crisis and issues management took good account of that. “This time next year”, we’d say to a troubled client, “will anyone really remember this?”.
But no longer. The arrival of the Internet age means that the media storm that breaks about your ears will be still rumbling on for years into the future. Any time that anyone researches you or your business, there it all will be, stinking like rotten fish, but never disappearing down the waste disposal chute.
This makes it much more important than ever that negative media coverage is challenged, countered and corrected at once, as soon as it appears. Yes, there are things you can do about old, inaccurate and damaging stories if they keep popping up on the web. But this can be difficult, messy and not 100 % effective. The time to fight back is when you are under attack. Keeping your head down and hoping for the “fish and chip wrapper” effect just won’t work any longer. Here’s the new rule to remember: “What the media hook today will be rotten fish tomorrow”.
Terence Fane-Saunders

Why people stick around

Tony Hunn, who masterminds all things technological at Chelgate, has just completed his 10th year at Chelgate. Amazingly, more than half the Chelgate team have now been with the firm for a decade or more. In an industry notorious for its flea-like job hopping, it’s truly extraordinary to find such a high level of “stickability”
So, what’s happening? Why on earth do they stay? It’s certainly nothing to do with the Chairman, who’s notably curmudgeonly, demanding and difficult.
In fact, I think I know why. It’s because of the jobs they are actually asked to do at Chelgate. When someone goes into PR, they usually do so because they want to do good work; to be an outstanding public relations professional. But the depressing truth is that in all too many PR firms – perhaps even most – the priority has shifted. It’s no longer about doing outstanding work for the client. It’s about maximising profit margins for the firm. So, the “product” becomes the chargeable hour, not the delivery of client service. The time sheet culture takes over, and people begin to forget why they are there in the first place.
Of course any half decent PR executive wants to work for a successful and prosperous employer. And they celebrate their firm’s successes and rue its setbacks. But the reason they went into PR in the first place was not to make their employers rich. It was to be the best PR professionals they could be. The success of their firm may be the welcome result and measure of their first class work. But it was never the primary objective.
When PR firms forget this; when they put profits ahead of professionalism; when they suffocate and dishearten their team by switching focus from client service to business profits, then it’s little surprise that their frustrated and disillusioned staff members develop itchy feet.
At Chelgate, every member of the team knows that their first priority, always, must be the quality of our professional service to clients. We believe that if we get that right, the rest (including the profits!) will follow. And because this is what they went into PR to do, I think that just might be why Chelgate people stick around. Here in this firm, whatever the other privations and hardships, they are at least able to be the professionals they want to be.

Class wars and PR smears

Gordon Brown’s “playing fields of Eton” swipe at David Cameron has generated almost febrile excitement at the prospect of a class warfare strategy for the election. But generally overlooked in the same exchange was his other attempted smear: that Cameron speaks with “the voice of a modern public relations man” .
The depressing fact is that the PM knows his pantheon of prejudice. He knows that PR people – worse, “modern” PR people, are right up there alongside estate agents, used car salesmen, old Etonians and, these days of course, bankers. Though a politician sneering at a public relations man does rather bring pots and kettles rattling to mind.
But Brown knows his beans. He knows that , for a large part of his audience, public relations is a dark art, dishonest, deceptive, manipulative, and too clever by half.
Of course they are wrong. But nobody is saying so.
It’s time that PR people – real PR people, that is, not propagandists, “spinners” , press agents and publicists – stood up for our profession, and explained what we do.
Real PR is a force for good. It benefits society, business and the public in general. Real PR is dedicated to enhancing relationships between organisations and their publics. Real PR understands that good relationships require good communications. This means listening as well as talking, because if you don’t listen , you’re certainly not going to be able to communicate. It also means communicating with honesty and integrity, because trust has to lie at the heart of any good relationship, and if you mislead and consistently lie to the other party in your relationship – whether you’re a business or an individual – you’ll destroy any trust and poison your relationship. Good PR recognises that, and acts accordingly.
Good PR also recognises that what business does, how it behaves, is central to its public relations. If an organisation behaves dishonestly, irresponsibly, insensitively or with gross greed in its relationships with any of its key publics, it will undermine the very relationships it should be nourishing. So PR at the highest level has to involve not just corporate communications but corporate behaviour too. Responsible, decent, generous and honourable behaviour. And the “voice of the modern public relations man” should be a welcome voice, because he understands what it takes to build and sustain a relationship.
But if truthful, honest communications and honourable, responsible behaviour are what modern public relations is about, then perhaps it becomes easier to understand why politicians like Gordon Brown seem to be so out of sympathy with the profession.
Terence Fane-Saunders

What Worked Yesterday

So it begins. Chelgate has joined the blogosphere.
I’m writing this on board Eurostar, after a quick visit to our Brussels office, where the mood seems more upbeat and assertive than I can remember for some time. Now that the Irish have fallen into line over the Lisbon Treaty, and indications are that the Czechs will do the same, it really seems that ratification will be more or less inevitable. And that, of course, poses a sticky problem for the Tories. What becomes of David Cameron’s “cast iron guarantee” of a referendum?
I’d guess that the Tories will have to back-pedal on the pledge. Holding a referendum once the treaty is ratified would make very little sense. The horse will have bolted, the stable door will hang ajar.
Of course, in a real world of common sense and honest dealing, it should be possible for the Tories to adapt their position to the changed reality. If you promise a patient a life – saving operation, but they die before reaching the operating table, you’re hardly going to plough ahead with the surgery.
And this patient’s certainly dead. The debate is over. If the treaty is ratified, then the referendum would be little more than a pointless post mortem. The guarantee simply wouldn’t apply any more, in that real world of common sense and honest dealing.
But, of course, this is not the world of British politics . Chances are that if the Tories do attempt to re-cast their cast iron guarantee, angry fingers will be pointed across the floor of the House, cries of “turncoat” will fill the air (and perhaps not just from the Labour benches). If Gordon Brown is quick on his feet, he should be able to land a few painful blows below the Cameron beltline. Weak, naive, fickle and inconstant. It’s easy to imagine the epidemic of epithets.
But while none of this would be really justified, and of course responsible Opposition adjusts its policies in light of events, the Tories also have themselves to blame. A basic rule of issues management is that you never make promises you mightn’t be able to keep. Good intentions alone are not enough. The public, usually, doesn’t give a fig for your intentions. It’s what you do that counts. In this case, David Cameron not only made the promise, but he gilded it and preserved it in the golden language of the soundbite. “A cast iron guarantee”. A phrase like that was never going to slip gently into obscurity.
But the Tory team are pretty astute. I wouldn’t expect them to wait for the Czech ratification before they redefine their position. Nor would I expect them simply to announce a change of policy. They should probably devote the next few weeks to a vigorous assault on Labour, pointing out that ratification will kill the last chance for the British people to have their say; that it will deny the British people the chance of the referendum which every major party has promised them; that if the chance of a referendum dies, it is the Labour party that has killed it. Before they actually announce a change of position, they should be re-defining the landscape of the debate. They need to build common acceptance that ratification changes everything, that if the hoped of a referendum is to be denied to the British people, it is because Labour has killed it, not because the Tories have abandoned it.
If they do prepare the ground this way, then they should be able to float a new policy for post-ratification, without appearing to be performing a contorted u-turn. But if they leave it too late, or fail to shape the debate over the next few weeks, I would expect Labour to have a happy field day with David Cameron’s “cast iron guarantee”.
It’s our 21st
It is actually 21 years this month since Chelgate opened for business. During that time, we have seen a revolution in our profession. The techniques, the resources, the very definition of our role have all changed beyond measure. Above all, the Internet has re-written the rules of good public relations and public affairs practice . I’ll be returning to these changes in later blogs. But perhaps what’s most important is not to look back, but to look ahead. The pace of change is accelerating, and new forces are reshaping the way that people interact with the world around them – with government, with business and with each other. Even months ago it would have been hard to forecast the impact of Twitter on public life. In just the last few days we have seen how the new phenomenon of the “Twitterstorm” had the power to tear the blindfold and gag off Trafigura’s watertight legal injunction on the Guardian. This must be stirring wild surmise in the hearts of lawyers and media relations professionals the world over. What barriers are safe? What can’t be done? At Chelgate, our task must be to ensure not just that we understand how to protect and promote our clients’ interests in this altered world. We must understand the changing possibilities for our business, looking ahead constantly, and never, for one instant, thinking that what worked yesterday will probably work just as well tomorrow.
The months and years ahead should be an exhilarating journey for our profession. Enjoy the ride with us. Stay in touch with the blog.
Terence Fane-Saunders
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