PR or PM? Half time for Cameron.

Before his elevation to the highest office in the land, David Cameron plied his trade in PR.  He was director of corporate affairs for Carlton, the broadcaster and television production company, between 1994 and 2001. He left to become Member of Parliament for Witney in Oxfordshire before his promotion to Leader of the Opposition.  He’s been Prime Minster for two years now. It’s half time and right to ask, on a non-scientific sample of one, whether PRs make good PMs?

Successful PRs share a range of common traits.  They know a little about a lot of things and know a lot of important people, but not all of them very well.  They are charming, sociable problem solvers capable of thinking quickly on their feet. They have an answer for every question or, if they don’t, will know a man who does.  The Prime Minister, on the other hand, does a very serious job of national and international importance.

This serious job usually includes creating policies in areas such as healthcare, education, policing and defence and social welfare. These policies should lead to general happiness aboard the good ship ‘United Kingdom’.

But Cameron’s Government’s policy is austerity. This means cutting jobs and reducing the cost of healthcare, of education, of policing and defence and social welfare. The result is that the good ship United Kingdom is, well, not that buoyant.  In the absence of policies, Mr Cameron appears to revert occasionally to his old job in PR.

Let’s start with The Big Society, the brainchild of Steve Hilton, Cameron’s former director of strategy. If ever there was a PR stunt masquerading as policy, that is it.  The presentation was a mess, the message not understood (despite a few attempts) and the few who think they got it weren’t big fans.

Then we had the Leveson Inquiry.  When the News of the World phone hacking scandal went mainstream, Cameron ordered a public inquiry.  This was an action straight out of Crisis Comms 101, paragraph 4.2, which states: “When something has gone wrong but you can’t put your finger on exactly what, announce an inquiry.”  It’s tried and tested, except in this case the investigation is managed by individuals who take their responsibilities very seriously.  Cameron, Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks, Jeremy Hunt and others have seen their reputations sullied by the whole affair.  A PR own goal.

Then we had the EU Treaty Walkout, or Operation ‘Act Tough, Talk Tough’ when Cameron stormed out of Brussels with the ball under his arm after Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy upset him during a discussion on the Eurozone crisis. The idea of an Old Etonian being ‘tough’ itself raises a giggle, but in PR, we call this ‘re-positioning’.  Still, the the most vehement europhobes liked it.

We won’t talk about the mis-management of Stephen Hester’s bonus at RBS, the ‘country suppers’ with an ex-editor of the News of the World, the appointment and resignation of Andy Coulson as comms director or the mystery of Raiza, the borrowed horse.  Nor will I hear another word about the ‘pasty tax’, ‘Angry Birds’ or ‘chillaxing’.

To be fair, no political party would want to sacrifice their strongest side during a bloody and drawn out global recession where doing what’s necessary creates few future voters, but for a PR man, Cameron has yet to show the presentational instincts of an Alastair Campbell or Bernard Ingham.

It’s half time and no one can yet be sure that history will be kind to Cameron’s premiership.  Let’s hope he has a better second half.


  • London PR

    I had no idea of his background!

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  • thecommsdept

    Thank you Mike. Debate and disagreement is the fastest route to education, which I think is the point of blogging in the first place. However, Cameron is the only PR to have become PRIME MINSTER (as opposed to politician) – Gordon Brown (university lecturer), Tony Blair (barrister), John Major (banker), Margaret Thatcher (chemist/barrister), James Callaghan (tax official), Harold Wilson (economist), Ted Heath (civil servant), Alec Douglas-Home (sportsman) etc.

  • Mike Love

    Unusually, I disagree with you on this one. There are other politicians who came from the worlds of PR who have made a pretty good go of it. Can’t think of too many names at the moment, but I’m sure I’m right!
    The problem with The Big Society is not that it was a PR stunt, because I don’t believe it is, but that the PR has just not been good enough. The name is crap of course, but the idea is a good one. TBS was intended o be the “Modern Conservative” narrative, the big idea, he vision that would capture what Cameron and the modernisers were all about, what sets them apart from the old “Nasty Party”/”No such Thing as society” Conservatives (like me) that opinion polling told the Notting Hill Set had to be changed. The Big Society has largely translated into the new Tory mantra of “Localism”, ironic maybe given the centralising drive of past Conservatve administrations, but it is art of the zeitgeist of consultation, inclusion and participation, principally the consequence of the digital, socially networked world we now enjoy. Whether Big Society or Localism, I think the problem is not that Dave was a PR man, but that the PR has failed. Good message but pathetic messaging.
    The euro walk-out was not PR at all, just good politics. But then as a europhobe I am a tad baised. This was a sop to the right-wing of the party, jut to say ‘I havn’t forgotten you, completely’.
    The series of tax related gaffes, including the latest debacle over tax avoidance, are all examples of both poor politics and poor PR. If Dave had exercised the skills he presumably had when at Carlton as a CAD, none of this woud have happened. No PR person worth their salt would have recommended the attack on Jimmy Carr. Mind you no real Conservative would have dreamed of attacking legal tax avoidance.
    The lack of a Campbell or Ingham, or even Coulson, in the team is very apparent – I have to agree with you there.
    Given that Dave came from PR, its a pity and perhaps surprising that the PR isnt better.