Alastair Campbell: change agent

Autumn 1994: Tony Blair is about to give his first conference speech as the leader of Britain’s Labour party. And it’s an important moment. Elected earlier that year on a platform to reform Labour, which has been out of office since 1979, Blair needs to demonstrate to his party – and the country – that he’s serious about change. 

But he needs a slogan to sum up his modernising agenda. His advisers have come up with “Labour’s new approach”, but it doesn’t quite work. Then Alastair Campbell, Blair’s press secretary and a former political journalist, finds the answer. 

“We were kicking ideas around when I suggested ‘New Labour, new Britain’,” he says. “Even Peter Mandelson, the arch moderniser, said that it would really put the cat among the pigeons. But when you’re managing change, the closer you can get to the words that express what you’re trying to do, the better. And our strategy was new Labour, new Britain – we were saying that we wanted to modernise the party as a way of earning the trust of the people to modernise the country.”

A strategic framework

Few people have Campbell’s experience of managing and communicating change at the highest levels of government. Following a Labour landslide at the 1997 general election, he acted as the prime minister’s press secretary and official spokesman. After his party won the 2001 election, he became Blair’s director of communications and strategy, until stepping down in September 2003. Campbell was close to all the defining events of that period, from the granting of independence to the Bank of England to the Northern Ireland peace process and the controversial decision to invade Iraq.

Today he sits on the advisory board of PR firm Portland, where he assists businesses and organisations with their communication strategy, and is also a political consultant, author and charitable campaigner.

Campbell previously gave a keynote speech at the IIA’s international conference in London, discussing how organisations can manage and communicate change. 

It’s a question of pressing importance for internal auditors, who are increasingly required to help executives and the board understand and develop ways to mitigate risk, keep abreast of sometimes extensive regulatory and compliance changes, and assist in the shift to new corporate governance requirements. 

As growth returns to many economies that have spent the past five years stagnating or in recession, organisations need to change their focus and strategies to benefit, exposing them to new areas of risk, some of which have developed considerably since the previous sustained period of expansion – such as cybercrime and social media. 

At the same time, in many organisations the internal audit function itself is in a state of flux as the profession takes on more proactive, consultative roles in addition to its traditional audit responsibilities. No change can be risk-free, but there are ways to control these risks and ensure that everyone is working towards the same goals.

So what are the key principles of managing change successfully? The most important is to have a clear strategy, says Campbell. “It’s amazing how many companies don’t really consider what they’re about. You need to focus on strategy and teamwork and have a disciplined approach to what you want to achieve. Sometimes change is forced upon you – just look at the financial crisis. But sometimes people just want to change things without knowing why.”

A clear, strategic, intellectual framework underpinned the creation of new Labour, he says. “Labour had to change. If we didn’t change we wouldn’t win power, and if we didn’t win power we couldn’t change the country. That drove everything we did.” This framework was supported by a set of values reflected by policies, including a commitment not to raise the basic and top rates of income tax, an approach to the trade unions that involved “fairness, not favours” and a shift in the party’s approach to defence. “You have to have that value framework,” adds Campbell. “Look at the banks: they want to improve their reputations but they don’t want to change their value systems. Without that, nothing changes.”

Change also requires “big, bold, symbolic moments” such as Blair’s successful campaign to amend the commitment to nationalisation contained in clause IV of Labour’s constitution, seen as a defining moment in the creation of new Labour. “That brought the debate alive. You need events, you need momentum, you need to build a sense that it matters and is important,” he says. “Generally, people aren’t bold enough and don’t think of the big things that can be done.”

Such boldness requires strong leadership. “Good leaders know their own mind and are prepared to take risks,” says Campbell. “You’ve got to be able to build a team and motivate them – US president Dwight Eisenhower once said that the art of motivation is making people want to do the things that you want them to do.

“If you read my diaries, you’ll see that it was a bloody nightmare and I wasn’t happy for a lot of the time. But I wanted to do it and I’m very glad that I did, because I liked working for Tony Blair and I believed in the Labour party.”

When people discuss great historic leaders, says Campbell, a very short list emerges: Churchill, Lincoln, Gandhi and Mandela. Yet history judges these leaders differently from the way their contemporaries did. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things that were said about Lincoln by newspapers and his opponents. Today, there isn’t an American politician who doesn’t bow down before his legacy.”

He adds that managing risk effectively is a key part of any change programme – and that the process is being made easier by the huge amount of data available today. “Lots of organisations ignore the mass of data that they can use to analyse whether to go for option A or option B.” 

This is somewhere where internal auditors can add real value if they can monitor the processes around change decisions and help to ensure that management are aware of, and can debate, the vital data that should support strategic arguments.

Getting the message across

All changes are likely to upset or disturb some stakeholders, whether they are employees, colleagues, customers or disgruntled members of the management team itself. Not everyone in Labour was happy with the decision to create new Labour. Some on the left of the party were uncomfortable with elements of Blair’s policy agenda. So how did the leadership influence opponents and persuade them to buy in to change? 

“You have to have the argument – and win it,” says Campbell. “Sometimes in politics you can win the argument and lose; you could argue that that happened with David Miliband in the Labour leadership contest. So we had to win it big. For example, the vote on clause IV was pretty overwhelming. I remember Tony saying all the way through that for it to be accepted, legitimate and useful, we had to win the vote in all three sections of the party. And we did.”

Effective communication was central to Blair’s plans, says Campbell. “When Tony first asked me to work for him, he said ‘this is about more than communication – you have to be embedded in strategy at all times’. That’s how you communicate: you have to really understand and believe in it.” Yet many organisations still treat communications as a bolt-on, even in the modern media age, he adds.

Campbell had a reputation for being fairly robust with journalists. But he says the decision about whether to adopt a persuasive or more forceful approach is context-dependent. “When you’ve got 100-odd journalists in the room and they’re all trying to push you in one direction, you have to be robust. You have to know what you’re using the briefing for, what you want to say, and be prepared to keep saying it.’ Sometimes I would repeat myself to the point where the journalists would roll their eyes – but I was determined to get our strategy across. I know I had a reputation for losing my temper, but I did so only very rarely.”

Ensuring a consistent message can be difficult in politics, given the frequent propensity of those with different agendas to leak information or to brief journalists. Campbell says that on such occasions, he would refer back to the strategic framework. “If a leak or briefing didn’t fit within that, I’d push back. If it did, then even if it was being done for hostile reasons, I could tolerate it and communicate that it was in line with our objectives.”

One example was the debate between Blair and his chancellor, Gordon Brown, about public service reform. “Gordon was worried that the balance between the public and private sectors was getting a bit skew-whiff and some of his people started to brief that there was a big argument going on. I could say ‘yes, there is a big argument because this is an important issue, but we’re completely agreed that there has got to be a rebalancing of that relationship’. In other words, you manage it in a way that calms rather than fuels screaming headlines about ‘Blair-Brownery’, of which there were too many.”

Change that endures

Campbell argues that Labour “did pretty well” at achieving its strategic goals – but believes it was less effective at developing the next generation of politicians. “If you look at sport, teams are constantly renewing themselves. I don’t think we did that very well,” he says. “The gene pool of politics as a whole is narrowing in a way that’s worrying. A lot of that is about the way the media covers politics, with the constant negativity and the way they delve into people’s private lives.”

But did new Labour achieve real change between 1997 and 2010? Unsurprisingly, Campbell believes that it did. “On the economy, we had a decade of growth and rising prosperity,”he says. “OK, in our time it ended badly, but I don’t buy this idea that it was all down to over-borrowing and over-spending. It was down to a global financial crisis, and actually Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling handled that as well as any other leaders in the world.” 

He adds: “If you go and read the 1997 manifesto, it’s amazing how much of it was done: a national minimum wage, a Scottish parliament, devolution, the New Deal for youth unemployment, schools and hospital investment, Bank of England independence, Kosovo, Sierra Leone. Things like the gay rights agenda, free museums and libraries brought about cultural change.

Several of these changes will be long-lasting, he believes. “It was interesting to see recently that George Osborne said that we should increase the minimum wage; when we brought it in, the Conservatives said it was going to cost a million jobs. They are not going to unpick devolution. In politics, real change – change that endures – is when you do things that the next lot feel they can’t undo.”

The age of transparency

The communications environment has changed in recent years, with the global financial crisis, increased public cynicism about business and the growth of social media all ratcheting up the scrutiny of both private- and public-sector organisations.

“The way organisations manage their brands and reputation has become so important,” says Alastair Campbell. “People are more fickle now and switch brands a lot more.”

Companies that want to grow and to have a profile need to be transparent – and they need to welcome that transparency, he adds. “That’s where the bankers get it so wrong.

“It’s the old judgment: if you do something your mother wouldn’t want you to do or something that you wouldn’t want to read in Private Eye, it’s probably best not to do it.

“But I think a lot of the financial world doesn’t think like that at all; they think they can get away with it.”

Campbell believes that social media has made political communications both harder and easier. “Look at the way that the Obama campaign used it to find people and turn them into supporters and then activists,” he says. 

“I would have loved being able to use social media, particularly during the early part of working with Tony Blair. When you’re in opposition you are so dependent on journalists, whereas with social media you can build your own networks.”

This article was first published in Audit & Risk May/June 2014.