Media-Frenzy (1)

The Portland Interview

Tony Blair’s Director of Communications Alastair Campbell answers our questions

What are the communications lessons of the Arab Spring?

For the leaders who fell, the lesson is a very harsh one – if you take your people for granted, and put your own interests before their rights and living standards, then long held assumptions about your longevity in power can be challenged. Also it showed that even where autocracies have extensive control over the media, social media has become very difficult to shut down, and a message can always be got out.
For those who protest, the lessons are a mix of the old and the new – you need energy and direction in terms of message and activity, and the new media landscape post 24/7 news and the advent of the web opens the doors to myriad opportunities for creativity and connection which have to be exploited tactically but as part of a strategic framework.
Which international leader is getting it right on communications and why?
If I had to pick one it would be Angela Merkel, and the reason has less to do with style of communication than with substance of policy, achievement, and a character which people have grown to respect more over time. She certainly stands out among European leaders, even if others might technically be more suited to modern communications.
What are the keys to managing international reputation?
Clarity of objective and strategy, an understanding of the difference between media opinion and public opinion, confidence in message rooted in strength of policy.
How do you view the current privacy / press freedom debate?
I think ‘debate’ elevates it beyond what we actually have at the moment, which is a largely self-serving media slanting the coverage of the argument towards their own interests. I am instinctively against the whole superinjunction business, but judges are interpreting law, which is their job, and I would have more sympathy with the media arguments on this if they had not allowed the public interest to become confused with their definition of what the public is likely to be interested in. They are not the same thing. The backdrop of phone-hacking, and most of the media’s complicity in trying to keep quiet about it, also makes them bad arbiters of the terms of the debate.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of Coalition communications?
I am a great believer in boldness in communications and the formation of the coalition was bold, as were some of the early steps they took. But Cameron in my view failed to win a majority because of a tendency to avoid strategic clarity and he is doing it again now. They started out fine – the strategic clarity was in the area of making the coalition work and sorting the deficit. They also did a good job, helped by the length of Labour’s leadership election, in falsely painting a picture of Britain’s economic woes as all being Labour’s fault.
But a year in, they have a political strategy – making the coalition work – which is less convincing than it was, and an economic strategy that does not seem to be delivering. In addition, there is a danger of them turning into something of a soap opera. I am getting very tired of Lib Dem interviews in which they seem to think we all care terribly about their emotional well-being, whether Vince is getting on with Chris and what a loss it would be if Chris fell overboard; whether Danny is having influence over George, and of course at the top whether Nick and David are getting on.
They are the government and their job is to govern. Cameron has Clegg where he wants him, but they both need to be aware of the habit-forming dangers of constant public ventilation of different approaches and strategies. All Clegg can do now is show some resilience, and even that may not be enough.
Can anyone over 25 truly get digital media? And what are the implications when decision makers are generally of a different generation?
Yes I think they can, but maybe not as instinctively as a younger generation. You have to keep learning and re-learning. Also though much of the execution of social media is intensely modern, a lot of its impact is very old fashioned. I view social media as taking us back in some ways to politics and debate conducted more like in village squares and market places of old, but on an electronic rather than face to face basis.
Which communications heroes would you invite to a dinner party?
Bill Clinton, Paul Keating, Muhammad Ali and Princess Diana.
Alastair Campbell is a writer, communicator and strategist. He now splits his time between writing, speaking, charitable fundraising, politics and campaigns. You can read his blog here and follow him on Twitter at@campbellclaret.