The cardinal PR sins committed by Gordon Brown in Rochdale
I always tell my clients that regular media training is an essential part of being the public face of any organisation.
Often I’m met with resistance as senior people say that they’ve got plenty of practice speaking to the media and yet, once they undertake media training, they soon realise that regular coaching sessions are vital, however well versed they feel they are.
Gordon Brown even admitted during the second leadership debate last week that: “If it’s all about style and PR, count me out.”
So the question for voters is how importance substance and experience are compared to personality and public perception.
And yet, particularly when he is under such stress and has so many demands from the insatiable media, Brown needs his associates to remind him constantly of the potential pitfalls so he can avoid them as they come his way.
A recent book by the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley suggested that he is prone to fits of anger and frustration.
The irony of his initial visit to Rochdale was that despite being doorstepped by a local voter, Gillian Duffy, he dealt with the questions perfectly well on matters including immigration, taxes and education and once again showed a more genial side that has been missing during much of his political life.
But he then made three simple but all too common errors that may well have put the election out of his grasp.
1. Never start talking off the record until you know all media are out of reach, cameras shut down and microphones are switched off. All too often we hear of people in the public eye speaking candidly in ways that would not be appropriate in front of the media. Brown was perhaps harsh calling Mrs Duffy a bigot when she voiced her concerns about immigration, a matter which affects everyone in the UK. But for his advisors and he himself not to ensure any microphones were off is a terrible error that has left him looking insincere and brutal, particularly after seeming so relaxed and calm on camera. It shows how much the pressure of this election is getting to him. As the BBC’s Nick Robinson said, it showed the vast difference between his public and private face. As far as undecided voters are concerned, it raises questions about how much he can be trusted on other issues or whether it is all a big act. Perception IS reality in public relations.
2. Never criticise the media. Brown spoke on BBC radio about the fact that the media shouldn’t have broadcast a private conversation, particularly as making an appearance was to satisfy media interest. That may be the case, but elections are as much about personality as about policy thesedays and in this world of 24 hour media, Brown has to accept that the media will always want interviews with him while he is campaigning or in power. Criticising the media only ever leads to one thing – the media biting back. Just ask Heather Mills.
3. Although it was unfortunate that it was caught on microphone, the fact that Brown was heard looking for someone to blame for the meeting with Mrs Duffy suggests he was looking for scapegoats rather than fronting up to an aspect of political life that he may find awkward. This can be interpreted as someone who lacks loyalty, who always looks for excuses rather than solutions and while the assistant he named (Sue Nye) has heard worse according to political observers, it’s hardly the behaviour of Henry V.
Watching Brown on BBC radio later on, he sounded and looked devastated by the error he had made and who can blame him?
It looked as if, in the glare of publicity he was contemplating how this PR error might end his political reign.
The fact that he apologised and then returned for a meeting with Mrs Duffy is textbook crisis practice, although his ally Lord Mandelson’s assertion that Brown didn’t mean what he said may have been well intentioned but simply raises more questions about the Prime Minister’s sincerity.
We’ve seen a human side of Gordon Brown but unfortunately, it’s more likely to be an aspect of his personality that alienates rather than endears, particularly considering the cordial nature of his exchange with Mrs Duffy.
We’ll know in a week how damaging this has been for Gordon Brown and he must be thankful that tomorrow’s leadership debate will probably prevent this story from dragging on for more than a day.
In this age of camera phones and 24 hour media, it underlines the importance for people in the public eye never to drop their guard and to maintain good PR practise.