The cynics are suggesting that Sarah Brown’s PR experience and guile was ably deployed to pilot her husband, Gordon Brown, through the rapids of a tricky by-election. OK, the first lady has a history of working in PR; in a previous life she was a capable operator in the art and publishing world. But she was never embraced the fluffy, air-kissing cliché side of the industry.
She was quite old in PR years at 30 when she created a new ‘integrity PR’ business with her pal Julia Hobsbawm, handling clients such as the feminist organization Emily’s List. It wasn’t a boutique PR that played with brands and hyperbole and wasn’t party to the business of dirty tricks. Sarah seemed happy to put that all behind to fill the tricky role of prime ministerial spouse.
The key factor to her new importance to her husband is that Sarah Macaulay was born into Buckinghamshire middle England and has a keen sense of what it takes to be an Audrey Callaghan; nurturing and supportive rather than secretly flexing a clever PR muscle. She is not one for re-branding herself with tasteful designer wear.
At the heart of her brand is her wariness of the media – somewhat unusual for an old PR hand. OP eds spreads in the early days pondered about how a formerly high-flying career woman could become content with life in her powerful husband’s shadow. They missed the point! She was unconsciously rewriting the handbook. The 21st century is defined by finding compelling stories for brands, stories that have brand integrity and real substance. Sarah Brown has accidentally crashed into this zeitgeist. Her reputation has been founded without the influence of a political spinmeister, and is installed in a unique place: the minds of the people.
She is the antithesis of Samantha Cameron, the Smythson frau; an ordinary, slightly frumpy woman, at odds with “glam sham”, who has avoided a makeover and who has been working quietly in the Labour heartlands, getting to grips with the minutiae of what long-standing Labour voters want. She may not turn an Essex floating voter, but her authenticity is reconnecting with the heartland Labour voters. A teensy bit dull seems to have worked, because it has not been spun out by the media gnomes at number 10. She is a very strong and very relaxed woman who projects confidence; the electorate are connecting with this down-to-earth authenticity not because its been engineered but because it’s real.
Sensible hair and a homespun brand was once considered impossible to sell to the British electorate, but this engaging honesty seems a success despite being very old Labour. She seems impervious to the harsh media focus and this has had a powerful effect. She chose to stand by her man when it was needed. She is above PR and is nothing if not real; the supportive wife stood beside her somewhat dour husband, helping in whatever way she can. She is perceived as a good woman, and, as the saying goes, behind every good man there’s a good woman.
Sarah Brown is becoming a huge media asset for Gordon Brown because she has eschewed the inspirational image politics of the Blair era at a time when people are tuning in to honesty in politics. She is understated and real; two qualities that cannot be spun into being. Like Michelle Obama, Sarah Brown is what she is by default and not by manipulated PR codecs. The consciously processed old skool persuasion arguments might have to be reengineered.