Gordon Brown’s Cold Call Campaign: Clever, then Stupid, then Maybe Even More Clever

Last week UK media all covered the story that Prime Minister Gordon Brown personally calls a selection of people who have sent him letters or emails. You might think that this is a nice personal touch that would get a neutral to positive coverage, but in fact many publications focused on the funny side. The prime minister, they claim, might be well meaning in his attempt to be more human, but he stupidly calls voters at 6am, normal office hours perhaps for a head of government but not for taxpayers. There’s a fairly typical example in the Daily Express: “…but the famously early-rising Prime Minister’s cold-calling was said to have backfired completely when he rang a number at 6am”. (Read the whole article at http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/46268/Hello-it-s-the-Prime-Minister-calling-yes-it-is-6am- )

You don’t need to know much about communications to be aware that stories like this do not get into the media on their own. Someone must be pushing them and in this case it is pretty obvious that it is the Prime Minister’s own people who have been pitching the story. It is unlikely that anyone else had access to the information or anything to gain from leaking it. In fact PR Week magazine credits the campaign to Brown’s strategy and communications chief Stephen Carter. See “Hello? Gordon here. I'm calling about your letter...” at
http://www.prweek.com/uk/home/article/812995/hello-gordon-here-im-calling-letter/

In one way Carter’s initiative worked very well, since the story made its way into every mainstream publication in the country and – a measure of success for any PR campaign – was lampooned by political cartoonists everywhere. But then where did the 6am part come from? It could only have come from the person(s) called at 6am or from Carter’s PR team. If it came from any member of the public we would have heard more about it by now. Not only has nobody contacted the papers to sell their story, but also nobody has responded to appeals by tabloids to identify them. The Daily Mirror, for example, has an appeal at the bottom of every article “Have you been phoned by the PM? Contact us on 0800 282 591 or at mirrornews@mirror.co.uk”. (See http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/topstories/2008/05/30/gordon-brown-rings-up-voters-to-thank-them-89520-20588289/)

So the 6am part of the story was either made up by journalists – unlikely in this case since everyone has the same version – or was part of the story released by Brown’s PR team. In fact the Daily Mirror refers in one article to a source they describe as a “Labour party insider”. But why do they voluntarily give the media this part of the story, something which would obviously be ridiculed? Even if you don’t like Gordon Brown can you really believe that he doesn’t know that 6am is not the best time to call?

The explanation is that the funny “Brown calls at 6am” part is an extremely good way to get the story picked up by everyone. If you just say that the prime minister is so wonderful that he even talks to normal people then he will not look so good and people will want to put him in his place. So to make the story acceptable you make it look like he is trying hard to do well and is just making a funny mistake. Yet in this case the funny mistake is very carefully calculated to make him look better. If he just said that he works long hours people would not be impressed, but most people take away from this story the fact that he works long hours.

Meantime the funny part of the story makes this a must print topic for editors everywhere and ensures that they will give extra space to it on the cartoon pages. It also ensures that TV gag writers and stand-up comedians everywhere will do their bit to spreading the word. In the end everyone has heard the story and everyone receives the almost hidden message that Brown works hard.

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