Devising a ‘handling strategy’, particularly for a prime ministerial announcement is a test of anyone’s mettle. It stretches relations between journalist and adviser, and calls for a large amount of trust and a certain amount of luck. Like a complicated dessert recipe, its success relies on timing and the quality of the ingredients, and if you get it right you’ll be rewarded with the most delicious result. Glued to the French political drama “Spin” currently gracing our TV screens, I am appalled by, yet in awe of, the lengths the advisors the French call “the men in the shadows” (no nod to equality in this drama…) go to in order to get the headlines. Okay, it’s a drama, but the reality of political spin doctoring here is not so different, maybe a little less brutal and a lot less deceitful.
The Prime Minister’s widely trailed speech on prison reform was an exercise in meticulous handling and briefing and I have no doubt that those responsible for publicising it will be pretty pleased with themselves. Of course, there are those who believe that this is nothing more than distraction politics, anything but the EU, and worse, those who believe that, somehow, by giving one of his key Ministers the mandate and the money he needs to make the reforms he wants, this will in turn win the PM support on his referendum gameplan. But taking the announcements at face value, it’s no mean feat to deliver the headlines you want when it comes to prison policy. It’s a divisive subject, views polarised, red top newspaper editors rubbing their hands with glee for a splash and a shocking headline, the more sober left wing broadsheets ready with facts and figures to exercise those empathetic to the idea of a dated, dangerous and unfair prison system.
From a communication perspective, it takes guts to call for the ‘wholesale reform’ of a ‘shameful system’ over which one has presided for six years. It’s a risky strategy and so calls for a no holds barred, full on assault of the media. There is no room for humility here, the tone must be one of being in total control, decisive, powerful, taking action. The favoured Sunday paper trail is key. Warm up the audience, play to the editorial line for favourable comment. Add in something counter-intuitive, and boom, full coverage, sympathetic op eds, respect for tackling a tricky subject. When it’s change that opponents have long been calling for, there is only one critique they can run with, that it has taken too long, but still they are forced to admit that the proposals are ‘welcome’.
Trailing the review of prison mother and baby units was smart. Despite it being policy for years, who can possibly argue that prison is the right place for a baby? Media united, straight down the line reporting, a Prime Minister looking human and compassionate, a softener for the trickier announcements to come. Monday saw further trails of the wider reforms – the creation of six reform prisons, governors being given greater autonomy, education reform Teach First style, and the introduction of prison league tables. There is no doubt that the coverage took a more critical turn – Prime Ministerial admission that the system is in crisis, outrage from political opponents and campaign groups that it has taken so long to address the very real crisis in our jails. And perhaps worse, some scepticism that anything at all will change in reality, after all, Governments going back to the 90s have declared full and comprehensive reforms which have amounted to little more than tinkering.
Insightful, informative and effective communications
Listening to reports today of record prison numbers is, for many working in the service, like groundhog day. But again, the briefings were targeted and smart; the FT ran prison league tables, they love numbers don’t they? The Independent chose to highlight the juxtaposition of a Conservative orthodox Government pursuing what appears to be a reforming agenda. Then the full briefing, the speech day coverage – more factual, more analytical perhaps with greater external commentary but by now, an aware public, and a frenetic social media discussion. Only the Daily Mail chose to splash a front page but no shocking headlines, no mock outrage, just a hint at soft justice. And finally, the Today programme. Reliable, forensic, usually balanced; it’s happened on Cameron’s watch, and things have got worse. Yet it wasn’t just Cameron that failed to act. It’s been a decades old problem, the prison population doubling over the last 25 years. Solid reporting, insightful and informative for the public.
To conclude, if these reforms are the nudge to the rudder that finally turns the tanker, then the legacy will be his. And, thanks to the clever souls who have to sell these ideas to a hard-to-please public, the proof of the pudding, or in this case the porridge, has been in the eating. Delicious.
Hannah Gardiner is Associate Director of Public Affairs, at Crest Advisory, and formerly Chief of Staff to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and Press Secretary to Nick Clegg.