ALTHOUGH he writes novels, interviews people for GQ and plays celebrity football matches these days, Alastair Campbell’s name in newspapers is almost always preceded by the label ‘spin doctor’, or ‘Tony Blair’s spin doctor’, or in more refined text ‘former communications chief’. And, so, as a communications expert, it might be fair to assume that he knows exactly what to do when the newspapers come calling in moments of PR crisis. This week might not have been considered a press coverage crisis at code red levels, but it was interesting to see how this master of the field reacted to the eye-catching splash in yesterday’s Ham and High, and the CCTV frames which showed some part of a confrontation he had had with a man who had verbally abused him in the street.
As the H&H‘s editor Geoff Martin explains in his leader, it all seemed a ‘pretty minor offence’; put well as a yellow card incident, for raising his arm and not just walking away from the sweary provocation.
Sure enough, the footage does not seem to reveal the bloodthirsty street attack that Campbell’s numerous enemies might have you believe. If something of greater significance had occurred, for example, you might expect some sort of curiosity from the restaurant worker breaking up boxes in the yard closest to the camera. He doesn’t seem to blink an eye.
But yet how does Campbell, the communications expert, react to a ‘Campbell doesn’t flatten man’ story? By dignifying the claims with a response of, not just a couple of sentences, but more than 1,000 words on his blog, a follow up to a lengthy statement given to the Ham and High. For good measure, he then spent much of yesterday afternoon batting off George Galloway, who had appointed himself as the chief detective inspector in the case, and George Galloway’s supporters, all in public view on Twitter.
Now, of course, anybody who feels unfairly criticised or under attack, whether they are PR experts or not, has a natural desire to defend themselves, and the spread of a news story on the internet no doubt only amplifies that urge. Campbell ran the risk of looking like he was trying to hide something if he had said nothing at all.
But if he had been in his old role and found himself dealing with the press for a colleague in the same position, would he have really advised a rebuttal of such length? Had a Labour minister or MP, back in the day, been in the same scrape, would he have said: the best thing you can do here is to increase the number of words written about this, by writing 1,001 words of your own to explain how stupid the whole thing is.
The idea, no doubt, is that the game has changed, and that high profile figures can outflank newspaper coverage by talking directly to the public, without fear of skew or misinterpretation, through their blogs and tweets. It’s true that he has a colossal number of readers and internet followers, and a 24 hour open channel into their feeds with which critical newspapers can not interfere.
It’s an interesting strategy, because it could be argued that by devoting so many words to this issue, he uncharacteristically played straight into Galloway’s hopes of getting the story of a forgotten exchange in a Hampstead street to blow up across the media, fanning the fire if you like. If newsdesks in Fleet Street were thinking, well, the CCTV doesn’t really show the punchy-Prescott moment which Galloway claims, they were at least able to hook their stories around the denial. Indeed, most of the headlines on the news stories we have seen this week, from the H&H to the Telegraph focus on his rejection of the allegations. A large share of the lift in the Mail today is swelled by his own words, razored from his blogpost. Others, like the Telegraph, didn’t even feel the need to use the CCTV still to tell the story.
Campbell had said enough to fill the space.