White House lessons for Downing Street.

Dr. Jack Cunningham, the government’s new official ‘Cabinet Enforcer’ has the first chance in a generation to redefine and rework the way that Downing Street and Whitehall present and implement the government’s legislative programme. Dr. Cunningham’s surprise appointment, in the summer reshuffle, is the first attempt by the Blair administration to put a minister with Cabinet rank in charge of overall coordination between the ever bickering Whitehall departments.

What started out as perhaps a reaction and a need for the Blairites to counterbalance the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, has set up his own oversight body in the Treasury, can now be turned into a revolutionary reworking of the way that the government operates.

Jack Cunningham’s new position has been the subject of much press speculation over the past few months, when most observers expected the job to go to Mr. Blair’s chief strategist and trouble shooter, the Minister without Portfolio, Peter Mandelson, MP. However, Mr. Mandelson’s turbulent relationship with the Chancellor, as well as his wish to have a traditional post ended up with him being sent to Trade and Industry. Dr. Cunningham had been Secretary of State for Agriculture before his new appointment with the title Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

However, despite all the press attention, what is known about this new ‘enforcer’ job is vague. From what has been reported in the press Dr. Cunningham will make the rounds on the TV talk shows, plan the government’s ‘spin doctoring’, and oversee long-range planning. From that one assumes that the Cabinet Enforcer, besides carrying out Mr. Blair’s wishes in Whitehall, will attempt to get the government to speak with one voice. Why is this necessary, and what, if anything, can Dr. Cunningham do about it?

In the public’s eye, the most powerful political figure in any country is the one who bears the responsibility for making sure that the government works. The public believes that government ‘works’ when it speaks with one voice and is able to control the agenda. While this figure will be held responsible at election time if the government ‘hasn’t worked’, it is rarely ever this same figure who is an expert in the nuts and bolts of governing.

In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair has the responsibility of keeping the team of government ministers working together. However, the reality is that the task is far too burdensome for one man, let alone one who has so many other demands on his time to be able to accomplish this. Therefore, in the recent reshuffle, Mr. Blair appointed somebody he and his colleagues trusted, to work the levers of government.

Any democratic government will stay popular as long as it is able to control the agenda. Controlling the agenda is not just a PR strategy, but a component of successful policy-making. Governments fall when they are no longer able to control the public debate and what is reported in the press.

However, when a new government first comes into office, it hardly ever imagines that there will be as many obstacles to controlling the agenda as there are. Scandals, unforeseen events, and disunity among senior members are three such examples of the ways that governments are plagued and often derailed. An essential component therefore of any successful government is a means by which all the moving and interconnecting pieces of government are able to be co-ordinated. Therefore the most important job for the new Cabinet Enforcer is to focus the media on the government’s themes and agenda.

As Jack Cunningham ponders how he will master what seems to be a very difficult and complicated brief, he should look at his equivalent in Washington DC, for some ideas he could perhaps put to use. No doubt, Dr. Cunningham would, if nothing else, score points from the many New Labourites, who try and emulate the exchange of ideas occurring between President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Obviously, there are many differences between the United States and Britain; however, our similar heritage and political systems allow us to exchange ideas back and forth between us. From 1992 to the present, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown kept an eye on developments in the United States, while Bill Clinton did the same with Britain. Speaking in 1995, President Clinton said ‘We are working to build more bridges across the ocean through exchange programmes . . . programmes that establish bonds of friendship, while transporting ideas and information, benefiting people on both sides of the ocean.’

Besides exchanging ideas, high profile staff members have criss-crossed the Atlantic to have a chance to work for both the New Democrat and New Labour ‘projects’. Among those are Philip Gould and Stan Greenberg, the pollsters, James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, and Sidney Blumenthal, the political and communications strategists, and Ed Balls, the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s economic guru.

The White House Office of Communications can serve as a very good model for what type of work Mr. Cunningham could turn the Cabinet Enforcer’s job into. Presently headed by Ann Lewis, the Office of Communications’ primary function is the co-ordination and presentation of the government’s policy initiatives across department lines and other traditional boundaries.

The Office of Communications, based in the White House, formally came into existence in 1969 under President Richard Nixon. However, the idea was originally suggested by President Kennedy, who wanted to appoint a ‘super press secretary’ to co-ordinate and oversee all of the executive branch. However, Pierre Salinger, the White House Press Secretary under Kennedy, was convinced he would be able to oversee the executive branch, by meeting with the press officers twice a week.

The Office of Communications grew out of President Nixon’s campaign team that had assigned some of its staff to focus on the task of ‘selling Nixon’. Once elected, President Nixon wanted an office whose sole role was ‘selling Nixon and his agenda’. Therefore the original function of the office was the White House’s long range strategic planning and playing the ‘long game’ with the President’s agenda.

By 1972, the art of getting the media to focus on Nixon’s agenda was so perfected that the Office of Communications was able to lay the groundwork for Nixon’s successful trips to China and the Soviet Union, and afterwards coast-to-coast re-election campaign, by ‘governing from the Rose Garden’. At the time Nixon aide, Charles Colson, said the Nixon White House came ‘as close to managing the news as you can.’ However, later in the administration the office’s sole role was to act as a vehicle for President Nixon and his staff to stop the flow of information rather than helping to disperse it.

Since the public’s perception of the President and his agenda ultimately determines the success of both, every administration since Nixon’s has included the Office of Communications in their White House and kept it playing a central role in their administration.

Over its history, the most successful Office of Communications – its role has been slightly different in every administration, and even often changed from year to year – was one best able to keep the country focused on the White House’s agenda by concentrating on accomplishing goals. Tactics to achieve these were: first, the use of simple themes, symbolizing the agenda, repeated over and over again; second, circumventing the national media and gaining more favourable coverage in other ways; third, goal setting and long-term strategic planning; fourth, the co-ordination of White House staff and mobilization of key administration allies; fifth, minimizing visible dissent within administration ranks and sixth, a media monitoring unit that is able to ‘punch back’ with properly targeted rebuttals.

Ronald Reagan’s Office of Communications came closest to perfecting the technique of the repetition of simple and easily understood themes woven throughout all interactions with the press and the public by formulating its ‘line of the day.’ Then by tightly restricting access to the President, and writing each speech with several sound bites, the White House could control what was reported.

Initially the theme or line of the day was tested before the public event backwards and forwards through focus groups and polling. The participants were asked what their concerns were and what they would like to see the President address. From these sessions, ideas and issues were then boiled down to single sentences which in turn would be used to make the themes and ‘sound bites.’ Media events were drawn up using all of this information. Nothing was left to chance, and every opportunity to reinforce the theme was exploited. Reagan’s Chief of Staff in the last years of his presidency was Don Regan who described how carefully planned the events were. ‘Every moment of every appearance was scheduled, every word was scripted, every place where Reagan was expected to stand was chalked with toe marks.’

Anytime that the media tried to deviate from that central theme, they were quickly steered back on course. At one press event, carefully designed around one theme, a reporter tried to get Reagan to answer a question unrelated to the staged event. Reagan responded by saying that ‘if I answer that question, none of you will say anything about what we’re here for today. I’m not going to give you another lead.’

A second way that the Office of Communications has worked to control and be able to set the agenda, was to bypass the ‘elite’ Washington-based national media. By going around them, the White House avoided the ‘colour’ and ‘taint’ of the Washington and New York-based reporters. All administrations have complained that the Washington-based reporters are usually demographically quite different from the ‘average middle American’ and therefore unlikely to be interested in the same issues and to have the same concerns. Spin Cycle, a new book by a Washington Post media reporter, argued that President Clinton was ‘still riding high at 60 per cent (in popularity) because he was talking about real issues, like tax credits for college, that were as important to voters as they were sleep-inducing for White House correspondents.’

This reached a point whereby at the end of President Clinton’s first term, and the beginning of his second, ‘there were two conversations going on in the country – the daily chatter between reporters and political operatives over all the manoeuvring and minutiae, and the president’s attempts to talk to the masses about the real issues in their lives.’

However, the Office of Communications understands that it is important to have a good working relationship with the White House press corps, but that it is equally important to know when to go around them.

Going around the Washington-based correspondents historically has been done in four ways: first by ‘going to the people’ with the agenda; second, by using different mediums of communications to ‘go to the people’; third by using new technologies and fourth by regionalising and making the news more relevant to people’s everyday lives.

The first way around the Washington reporters is by going straight to the public. It is a tactic used by Presidents who feel under siege from the White House correspondents. One book, written at the beginning of the Clinton presidency, was titled Campaigning to Govern. It pointed out how President Clinton kept going to the people time and time again, as if the campaign was not oven He spent many days on the road talking with ‘real Americans’ and attending public events.

A second way that the White House goes around the Washington press is by using new mediums and methods of communications. The 1992 Presidential election was the first time that radio and TV talk shows became the most used way for the candidates to take their message to the public. Consequently, the 1992 election is often referred to as the ‘talk show election’, when candidates appeared on a record number of talk shows. Everything from talk radio, to television’s Larry King Live and Donahue. However, these shows tended to be more entertainment than hard hitting debates about complicated policy questions. Voters saw Bill Clinton playing his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show and asked about his preference for underwear, boxers or briefs on MTV’s Choose or Loose. He prefers briefs.

A third way the White House is able to go around the Washington media is by harnessing new technologies. The Clinton White House initially used electronic mail to disburse Presidential speeches, position papers, White House press briefings, schedules, and even photographs. The White House world wide web page was the next step after email, and served again to remove reporters and commentators who came between the White House and the public.

The fourth way around the Washington press that was used by the White House was the regionalisation of the news. Offices of Communications, since President Nixon’s day, invited regional media editors to come to the White House for policy briefings and often a short chat with the President. President Reagan gained his status as the ‘Great Communicator’ this way. He frequently met with the local and regional media and ultimately gained very favourable editorial coverage, because he was able to explain his vision and agenda in a way people understood. These regional media correspondents, because of their lack of normal access to the White House, often leave awestruck and more inclined to report favourably on the President.

Offices of Communications have traditionally tried to give news coming from Washington a ‘regional’ slant. A normal press release from Washington to a media outlet, in ‘middle America’, might only get two or three inches of text. However, if the press release has taken a local angle, and the news has reconnected with what seems to matter to people, it is likely to get better coverage. Therefore, the Office of Communications takes pains to target and tailor executive branch news to specific interest groups and even certain geographical areas.

A good example occurs when there is a national disaster like an earthquake. One of Ronald Reagan’s aides said that ‘we would call every media outlet in the state that was affected and give them an individualized statement because it dramatically increased the coverage we got. If we called a weekly, we were assured a lot of ink’.

A third way that the White House Office of Communications has sought to control and set the agenda is through the setting of long-term goals and planning in advance. The White House has run into trouble when it had given the task of long-term planning to somebody who was also involved with the media day to day, and therefore could not rise above the fray. Jody Powell was President Jimmy Carter’s Press Secretary and charged with daily press briefings as well as long-term strategy. He stated the problem with this remark: ‘It’s hard to drain the swamp when you’re often up to your ass in alligators.’ And his White House associates often said that Powell was always in this situation.

In fact the inability to engage in long-term planning is one of the central difficulties that newly elected Presidents are beset with, even if they think they understand the culture of Washington. They are often shocked to learn that the government departments have the agility of a super oil tanker. The departments and bureaucracies are inherently opposed to change and new ideas. In order to make all the government departments run effectively together, the White House needs to be planning ahead and anticipating what is needed to keep the departments on course. Ronald Reagan’s Office of Communications, especially, performed these tasks with the greatest precision in the early days of his administration. The constant co-ordination allowed the Administration to speak with one voice, control the agenda, and hold Congress at bay.

In the Clinton White House, the role of long-term planning, was handled at the end of Clinton’s first term and start of the second by former journalist and Director of the Office of Communications, Donald Baer. Spin Cycle gives us another insight here. Baer saw as his task to take the ‘longer view . . . (he) thought in increments of weeks and months, plotting out the President’s schedule on his desk. He had no talent for crisis management, couldn’t stand doing it. He was a big picture man. Baer believed it was important for the President to rise above the day to day strife and embrace the kind of values that would resonate with the middle class.’

A fourth way that the Office of Communications has sought to control the agenda is through the co-ordination of its own staff and surrogate speakers. Perhaps this point is more relevant to the White House than to the No. 10 Downing Street staff, because the White House will have a staff of roughly 1500 while Downing Street has fewer than 200.

The Office of Communications has traditionally sought, although not always effectively, to co-ordinate the different offices within the White House. Ensuring that the Research, Speech Writing, Press Office, Media Liaison, Scheduling and Advance, and Policy Offices, are all pursuing the same themes enables the Presidency to be more co-ordinated and work better.

The Office of Communications also works to disseminate the President’s message and line of the day through many sources; through members of his Cabinet, members of Congress, local government officials and other administration allies, including columnists and leading media personalities. The job is complete when all of the President’s team is seen to be speaking with one voice.

A fifth goal of the Office of Communications is to create the impression of unity. The Office has always sought to give the impression that everybody was on board with the President’s proposals. Disunity is a sure way of losing control of the agenda, allowing the media to focus on a disagreement, which often only exasperates the problem.

However this is easier said than done. It is much easier for the press, which may not understand every last detail of a policy disagreement, instead to focus on the two opponents, and blame the chief executive, the President, for losing control. One powerful office is needed to combat disunity, minimize it if it can and then come back with its own message. Letting the conflict persist, or not combating it effectively, will allow the press to take the agenda away from the government.

While trying to prevent conflict, the White House Office of Communications encourages and if need be forces government departments to look at the ‘big picture’, rather than focusing all their attention on their own departments and worrying about the so-called ‘turf wars’ between their colleagues for the precious few resources available.

A sixth way that the Office of Communications has kept the control of the agenda is through the media monitoring office. This office, under the control of the Office of Communications, reacts and rebuts stories in the media that the White House considers biased and also keeps the press from distorting its message. When it works effectively, the monitoring unit will work with focus groups and polling which allow the White House to find issues of deep public concern.

A Nixon aide, quoted in Spin Control, said that a media monitoring unit is needed to stop ‘unfair coverage’ and that in rebutting unfair accounts, he suggested in a memo to Nixon’s Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman that ‘we stop “shot-gunning” our critics with our disorganised calls and complaints, and use a focused “rifle” approach that might do more good.’ The Nixon administration and most of the other administrations understood the need for quick, accurate, and precise rebutting of each and every charge, rather than an uncoordinated and unfocused rebuttal.

Implementing an office similar to the White House Office of Communications within Whitehall would allow the Blair Administration to continue to set and drive the agenda. This will become increasingly important when the Prime Minister’s ‘honeymoon’ ends which, even his most fanatic supporters agree, eventually will happen.

The idea for the way the responsibility of dealing with the media would be divided comes from the way the White House operates as well as from a model mentioned in the book the Blair Revolution, by Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle. The No. 10 Press Office would have the day to day responsibility of briefing the London based lobby corespondents and dealing with small-scale firefighting as conflicts arise. The Press Office’s function would be mainly reactive, disseminating requested information.

The long-term strategic planning, theme development, direct appeals to specific targeted audiences, and the co-ordination of the Downing Street staff would be the job that Jack Cunningham has and would continue to be based in the Cabinet Office. Essentially the office would focus upon long-term issues, and would be proactive in its dealings with the public and with the media. The one question they would focus upon is what is needed to sell Mr. Blair and his administration. Some of the methods they could use have been mentioned above.

Two other important tasks that up to this point have only been casually addressed in Britain, that would also fall under Dr. Cunningham’s responsibility, are first the reforming of the way that the government departments run their press offices, and second, using new and emerging media technologies to sell the administration.

The first problem to be dealt with is that news rooms today are often described as having an insatiable appetite for news. They need to be constantly fed fresh information. In Soundbites and Spin Doctors, BBC reporter Nick Jones describes ‘Whitehall information officers regularly returning home after an exhausting day to find themselves besieged by interview bids and inquires from a fresh wave of reporters, producers, and researchers who have just started work, are full of enthusiasm, and are preparing for the next morning’s breakfast programmes.’ Several Whitehall information officers were replaced in the early days of the Blair Government.

To stay on top of the agenda requires press offices to be more proactive and be able to handle more requests for information. Whitehall press offices are not equipped to deal with the 24 hour news cycle.

Just recently, the House of Commons Public Administration Committee which heard evidence from the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman, Alastair Campbell, concluded in their report that the Government Information Services was out of date. The report recommended that the service be reviewed so that it could take into account the fact that news is now a 24 hour business. A committee member was quoted by saying that ‘the GIS has the feel of the seventies or eighties. The whole world of communications has altered dramatically and it has not kept pace.’

Herb Klein who for some time headed President Nixon’s Office of Communications had the same reaction when he first began his job. He described how ‘creaky and antiquated’ the government departments’ press offices were. The lesson to be drawn from both of these examples is that reviews of the way that government departments put out their news need to be taken more often.

A second area are the new and non-traditional ways of going to the people. As less and less people read newspapers, it is important to reach them where they have turned for their news. Mr. Blair to his credit has made a few of these efforts, answering questions on-line in the ‘Downing Street chat room’ and talking with chat show host Des O’Connor, which not unsurprisingly got attacked by the traditional press. If instant news, via the Internet, is going to be the new trend, and all signs are pointing that way, then the departments must find a way of dealing with this development, sooner rather than later.

Bradley Honan came to Britain in September 1997. He studied at the Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government, run through the London School of Economics, while working for Bill Olner (Labour – Nuneaton) and Nick Brown (Labour – Newcastle), formerly the Government Chief Whip. He works in the European Parliament for Mark Hendrick, Member of the European Parliament (Labour – Lancashire Central).