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PR coup of the decade?

The front cover of the British Government's Spending Review for 2010, is shown to the media by a Treasury official in London.

The CSR was a true phenomenon. For a whole month the attention of much of the country was captured – not by a World Cup, not by a war, not even by a televised talent show – but by George Gideon Oliver Osborne and his review of public spending. His plans were a major topic of conversation. How hard would his axe fall? Where would it land?

But it wasn’t just the sight of a nation in thrall to the chancellor’s chopper that fascinated. It was the fact that when the chopper dropped, taking 490,000 public sector jobs with it, Osborne and his party emerged – initially at least – unscathed from the wreckage. A week after the announcement, the coalition still had a huge 14 point lead over Labour when it came to public perception of their economic competence. George Osborne and David Cameron’s personal approval ratings were completely unaffected by the biggest rollback of the state in British history, and the Conservatives maintained their three point lead over Labour in voting intentions.

So how did they do it? How did the bonfire of the budgets not provoke an immediate and epic drop in popularity for the Tories? How did they avoid the cuts – of up to 36% in some departments –being perceived as ideologically driven, a throwback policy from the “nasty party” of yore? Sure, some of it lies in the innate sadomasochistic political tendency of the British people. As Ben Caspersz, Managing Director of PR agency Claremont, which has provided communications advice to the government and its agencies, says: “The British people don’t believe a medicine is really working unless it tastes like shit.”

“How did they avoid the cuts being perceived as a throwback policy from the ‘nasty party’
of yore?”

Initial success also relied on an unprecedented political context. Thanks to their coalition with the Lib Dems, the Tories were able to pin a yellow rosette to the cuts – an extremely useful cover which implied cross-party consensus. What Caspersz calls “Dave and Clegg’s good-cop bad-cop routine” has been effective in taking the edge off controversial announcements. And it certainly helped too that while the cuts were being planned, Labour was focused inwards on its own leadership election, and was therefore unable to offer consistent, credible opposition. Alan Johnson helped the Tories, too: his first act on being appointed as Shadow Chancellor on October 8th was to undermine himself completely, saying he would need to pick up a primer, ‘Economics for Beginners’, to aid him in his new role.

But the cuts have also been handled incredibly well by the new Coalition from a PR perspective. It’s been a hard sell, but it’s been done smartly. The first manoeuvre, which was critical to the success of the subsequent strategy, took place well before the CSR announcement: the Tories made Gordon Brown and Labour look economically incompetent. Cameron was helped in this by Brown’s own series of PR gaffes in the dying days of his premiership and by the gift of the last Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne, and his note to his successor, David Laws, saying “there’s no money left”. Intended as a joke, this was turned by the Tories into a usefully damning epitaph for Labour’s time in office.

“Osborne used the words ‘fair’ and ‘fairness’ 17 times. Yet he only said ‘cuts’ four times”

The next step was to paint the cuts as unavoidable. Simon Francis, blogger on the cuts and a director at PR firm Band & Brown, who has also advised a number of government departments, believes the true success of the Coalition PR machine has been to convince the public that when they took over running the country it was on the “brink of bankruptcy” – a handily alliterative phrase often trotted out by Osborne and his team – and that drastic cuts were therefore in the national interest.

Chancellor George Osborne is congratulated by colleagues after delivering the Comprehensive Spending Review in the House of Commons, London, Wednesday 20th October, 2010.

As well as painting the nation as being on the brink of ruin, the Coalition’s linguistic policy has cleverly drawn on wartime metaphors and messages. The very first thing Osborne said when he was appointed to the role of Chancellor was “now’s the time to roll up the sleeves and get Britain working”, and these themes of sleeve-rolling and “getting stuck in” have become a mantra picked up with Churchillian glee by the right wing press. Another linguistic sleight of hand has been to push the line that we are “all in it together” – an impressive coup given that the cabinet contains no fewer than 18 millionaires.

The relentless focus on “fairness” has also been successful. “It is the equivalent of Obama’s focus on ‘change’”, says Caspersz. “It’s a word that nobody can dislike or disagree with really because it’s a universal aspiration rather than a policy.” In his CSR speech Osborne used the words “fair” and “fairness” 17 times. Yet he said “cuts” only four times, despite that being the topic under discussion. It’s a simple trick – and it worked.

The government was also successful in trailing the cuts as being larger than they eventually turned out to be, a classic PR tactic. The government went out of its way to show it meant business, with Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander initially demanding plans for cuts of 40 per cent from ministers. The request was made in a letter to the cabinet on a Tuesday only for the story to appear, conveniently enough, in the following Saturday’s papers – attributed to “sources”.

The “40% impending doom” story was effective because it  made the final cuts, in many departments in the region of 25%, seem small by comparison. “It’s like a restaurant putting a bottle of £100 wine on the menu just to make the £40 bottles seem cheap,” says Caspersz.

One final strategic strand to the PR coup of the decade was the strong focus on percentages instead of details of specific cuts.

According to Francis, “The cuts announced in the comprehensive spending review deal in big picture abstract concepts. Anyone can sign up to a cut by a percentage – especially if they have been convinced of the necessity of cutting in the first place. What people haven’t thought about – indeed some argue the government hasn’t even thought this through – is the real world application of the cuts.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the CSR has been a PR coup. After all, Cameron held a PR role with ITV television company Carlton as director of corporate affairs for seven years. Meanwhile, George Osborne was a Special Advisor for two years at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (now Defra) in the mid-90s, and Cameron’s director of communications is Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World. Coulson is flanked by Steve Hilton, Cameron’s director of strategy who has been praised by Saatchi & Saatchi and was behind the award winning “New Labour, New Danger” poster campaign in the 90s.

“The British people don’t believe a medicine is really working unless it tastes like shit”

The build-up to the CSR announcement was a PR masterpiece, an immaculately plotted exercise which used tactics ranging from the blunt to the elegant to persuade a populace – at least in the short term – that this was the shitty-tasting medicine they needed. But compared to what is to come over the next couple of years, the presentation and immediate aftermath of the CSR was the easy part.

Will public relations be sufficient to soothe those who lose their jobs and homes in the coming years as a result of the cuts? And how much blue-sky thinking and media manipulation will it take to convince the newly disadvantaged that Osborne’s axe has been weilded in their best interests?


Patrick Southwell is a PR director for a top London communications agency who has advised government departments on their PR strategies in the areas of education, health and justice. He also works with some of the UK’s top technology and global healthcare companies.

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