When you’re out to win a piece of PR business you start with a credentials pitch. Here you lay out your wares in the most enticing way possible, dangling your USP hypnotically in front of the prospective client so that, with any luck, all resistance becomes futile. Yesterday New Labour Inc. came a-looking for our custom but didn’t risk putting any faith in something as vague as ‘luck’. Crammed with photo opportunities portraying Tony, Cherie and their cabinet ministers as one big, joyous family, not a trick was missed. Tony showed determination from the very start, picking off and disposing of the Big Issues before the hacks had even got the tops off their biros…Iraq, Trustworthiness, Brown, bang, bang, bang nailed right between the eyes . Blair needed the guile of a snake oil salesman pitching his new format and reworked persona but what a corporate pitch to the investors. The lads at Brunswick would have been proud of the show if they had to stage it for one of their FTSE clients to announce the yearly results
The legendary American PR guru Ed Bernays was once hired to make cigarettes attractive to women so the mighty Reynolds corporation could sell tobacco to a whole new market and double its profits. Off he sailed to Paris, where he discovered what colours the major couture houses would be promoting the following season, returning to launch a brand of ciggies in those self same tones. It worked: American women took up smoking. That’s the sort of combination of attention-to-detail and downright immorality which gives PR a bad name.
But there comes a time in the life of every brand, from Horlicks to Hovis when someone looks at the market profile, sees an opportunity, and starts suggesting changes. Very occasionally the product itself gets a revamp – look how they ruined the old ten-ton Mars Bar – but usually it’s down to rejigging the packaging and putting plenty of loot behind some emotional advertising. God knows how much money was spent relaunching Tony Blair and the Seven Dwarves in Brighton yesterday, but the fact that you could order and pay for your copy of the video on your way out of the hall suggests someone somewhere is keen to get some cash flowing back in as quickly as possible.
Nothing was allowed to get away. From the return to Old Labour colours, (remember how it all went pastel a few years ago? Well, (RED IS BACK AND IT’S THE NEW BLACK darling) to the impeccable soundbite-machine himself, quite heavily made-up, and entirely perspiration-free. Like the relaunch of an old favourite in a different style – the tabloid Times, the Mini, even Cat Stevens – we were only shown what ‘they’ wanted us to see – the fallible, friendly family man, the caring human a 1950s parody no less, ‘doing what’s right and sticking to it come what may’ – while the curtains stayed firmly closed on Sarun himself.
This wasn’t conviction politics. This was a message to shareholders dressed up in corporate two pieces, a glossy, professional brand-repositioning exercise. Everything was as slick as a new car launch, or one of those “Research & Development” days the major pharmaceuticals host, where they pretend to talk science all morning when they’re actually only talking to the chap from the FT in the front row. The camera angles, the placing of the Cabinet, the kissing, the soundbites from Peter Mandelson and Billy Bragg – like the best advertising pitch money can buy, every possible presentational skill was brought to bear on the audience to market Blair’s warmth, trustworthiness and cute fallibility. It aped an Ad agency re pitch to an client, the old banana that the past campaign was OK but a little bit of reposition is needed before the brand goes back to the market place,.
One of the finest close-up magicians of all time is a giant of prestigiation named Ricky Jay. Even from six inches you can’t tell how he’s doing what he’s doing, so skillfully do his patter, his hands and, crucially, your lack of understanding combine to deceive you. It’s called the Art of Distraction and it’s getting like that with this government. They may have grown up from the naivety of their first term, but with experience has come guile. Even though he acknowledged the wrongness of the WMD mantra, Blair didn’t apologise, he wasn’t contrite, he was simply performing before a hand-picked audience, with the charm button, like the volume control on The Darkness’s amplifiers, firmly turned to 11.
Call me a cynical old PR man with an eye on the publicity stunt but I’d even go so far to suggest the coup des gras was that some of those ‘demonstrators’ in the hall, with their authorised passes and their security clearance, were in on the game. Why not? Roll up and see the Giant of the political stage grapple to the floor all in the name of free speech the boo boys ‘SEE BLAIR COPE WITH THE UNEXPECTED’, or ‘SEE BLAIR BE STATESMANLIKE IN THE FACE OF HECKLING.’ Other regimes have used such tricks. Now New Labour isn’t new anymore anything could happen and probably will.