News broke yesterday that Ed Miliband has appointed two political journalists to beef up his communications team. Bob Roberts, currently political editor of the Mirror, and Tom Tom Baldwin of the Times.
Time will tell whether these two gel and make a real difference to Labour's operation. I expect they will. About 18 months ago I wrote an article looking at the importance of a strong press secretary to a campaign for Total Politics . Today seems like a good time to publish the crux of my argument:
Press and media managers are too often ignored as an essential component of a campaign team. They are dismissed by policy wonks as lightweight or labelled spin doctors to be reviled and rarely trusted – even by the rest of the candidate’s team. They are seen to be the worst part of modern politics when in truth their work on a campaign may be the difference between winning and losing.
Keeping on message is not a modern political discipline. It is a discipline of good political campaigns and strong candidates throughout history. Think Reagan in 1984, Blair in 1997 or Obama in 2009. Once you lose control of your message it is very difficult, if not impossible, to get the campaign back on track. While Barack Obama was relentless in his message of change, John McCain was far too tactical in his approach and willing to shift his campaign focus. Clever tactics one day – the Sarah Palin nomination for example – can backfire resulting in campaign messages becoming diluted.
While a candidate must ensure consistency of message so must the press secretary. Never go beyond the candidate’s policy, or worse invent policy, just to make a story. Journalists are just doing their job and often try to snare you with their clamour for a big scoop or a desire to move the story on somehow to satisfy their editor. The press secretary should never let their briefing get ahead of the facts. Always be economical with the words they use. Brevity is good, bluster is bad. An eye for detail – particularly on policy – is welcome (particularly by those sceptical wonks on the team) but as the spokesperson for the campaign the briefings should represent the campaign, its messages, and nothing else.
Credibility is an important watchword in politics but also for a campaign spokesman. They should always be comfortably in the loop with key decisions made by the campaign manager, this helps in two ways: it boosts their credibility, and the media’s confidence in the answers they are being given, but also helps to ensure strong message discipline.
A famous example of a spokesman losing credibility was JFK’s excellent Press Secretary, Pierre Salinger, undermined by not being informed in advance of the US backed invasion of Cuba, at the Bay of Pigs. Subsequently it was reported Salinger confronted the President saying he couldn't continue as press secretary if he wasn't kept sufficiently in the loop. This illustrates the uncertainty of a press secretary’s world.
They are forever in need of information about the campaign, policy announcements, tit bits and gossip. Without this they become redundant to their audience – the media – who will start to look elsewhere for information.
It is a job with more responsibility than authority. So, what career path creates a great campaign press secretary; political communications or journalism? The answer comes in the very nature of the task and many find the duality of the role a difficult balance to master. Salinger called himself ‘a reporter for the rest of the press’.
A press secretary is there to help journalists get the news but ultimately works for only one person – the candidate. Ideally the press secretary will have a background in both political comms and journalism but due to the nature of the task, that of representing their boss to the best of their ability, above all else, a career in political communications is preferable.
Moments of interaction with journalists or voters can often shape the nature of a campaign. As a result very often you will find that big decisions are made by this individual in the heat of battle. While a good campaign manager will work to shape the message and the direction of the campaign itself, frequently it is down to the media team to steer a campaign through stormy waters. A well disciplined and experienced media handler will be used to operating with scant resources and will be well accustomed to operating by the mantra of ‘speed kills’ when needs must. Flexibility is a key asset; you must recognise even the best campaigns can become unstuck or derailed. It is the flexibility in your team, and the speed of your response, that will determine how quickly you get the campaign back on track.
Your campaign press secretary is also your intelligence gathering antennae. A street-wise media handler is your eyes, ears and your sixth sense. If they are doing their job properly they will have a network of contacts in the press and media who will be able to warn them of impending trouble ahead as well as identify areas of weakness in your opponents.
Spotting a chink in your opponents armour, such as a poor radio or newspaper interview, can be your way of moving your opponent off their home territory to allow you to seize control of the campaign. While message discipline is fundamentally important to delivering a good campaign for you, moving your opponent off their chosen territory and onto yours should also be a key aim.
A good media campaign will enable you to set, not only the tone of your campaign, but of the entire election battle. Foot-soldiers knocking on doors and getting out the vote can only do so much. In the majority of cases a campaign will have been won and lost through the media war fought the weeks or months before polling day.
The media coverage of a campaign is the mood music, the constituency is the set, and the script for the election is your messages. Now all you need is for your star performer (the candidate) to deliver a faultless performance and the encore will be secured.