Opening speech introducing communicator, writer and strategist Alastair Campbell by ReputationTime 2018 Organiser Dagnija Lejiņa on May 11, 2018 at Cafe Film Noir in Riga.
Reputation is Still the Most Valuable Currency
Greetings to all of you – all one hundred “shiny happy people” who have chosen to spend a majority of this sunny Friday evening in this dark basement. Who is here? PR professionals, journalists, business leaders and NGO activists – in summary – we are successful investors. We know the secret: that it’s not bitcoin, but reputation, that is the most valuable currency of today. We are already the lucky winners, because we know those who win people’s minds and hearts – those are the heroes of today.
Less is More
As many of you know, together with Juris Šleiers, Christophe Ginisty and our team, we’re holding the ReputationTime conference the fourth year in Riga. We’re bringing together great minds from all over Europe to share the challenging ideas of reputation management. This time is very special, and very different. We decided that less is more and instead of a whole day conference, we chose only the evening and only one speaker. We decided on Friday evening – after all, our work is done and we’re already in a weekend mood. We’re n this very hidden basement, where hopefully our phones don’t have signal so you will be forced to pay full attention to what is it happening on the stage for the rest of the whole hour and a half. We do have one tradition that remains – we always have our partner in crime – ReputationTime Paris conference founder Christophe Ginisty joining us in Riga.
Today’s Speaker is the Legendary Alastair Campbell – Spin Doctor of Spin Doctors
When people ask me ‘who is he?’ my elevator pitch goes as follows: first I tell them he is the spin doctor of spin doctors. Second: he is a master of modern political campaigning – proven by his role as communications advisor to Tony Blair, for whom he was the main driver of political success. And third: he writes great books, which at some point becomes bestsellers. My favorite ones are “The Blair Years” and “Winners and How They Succeed”.
Researching Modern Political Campaigning
Personally, this is a very special moment and not only because we finally got Alastair here (he was on our shortlist for four years in a row!). He is very busy. His calendar never sleeps, and maybe his tweet-deck doesn’t either with almost half a million followers.
There is also another reason. I have to confess that some 15 years ago I didn’t know very much about Alistair Campbell. I was serving as a press secretary to the Foreign Minister at 23. It was very interesting time – right after joining the EU and NATO we had to restructure our foreign policy goals, we signed the Latvian – Russian border treaty, but it was also a very difficult and mentally hard time period. After three years I had to have an “exit strategy”. I was lucky and got the British Chevening scholarship to study at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
For the first time LSE created a masters degree program on Politics and Communications – realising the impact of communications in politics is worth studying. Our studies revolved a lot around the role of communications in the modern age. Politics, people and media – how it all interplays in a democracy. We focused a lot on modern campaigning, and of course, New Labour with Alastair Campbell and his team mates Philip Gold and Peter Mandelson. They greatly advanced the model of modern political communication and their strategies were much discussed in academia. Alistair and his colleagues where the icons of modern political campaigning of the time. Loved or feared, but there they were.
Public Opinion Versus Leadership
During my student years I only had the chance to meet Philip Gold, who was giving lectures on the importance of measuring public opinion on an everyday basis to deliver the right policies and campaigns. He was a polling guru. After the lectures I was left with a dilemma – a question that has remained in my head since. In a democracy, how far should we follow public opinion, and how do we find a leadership balance regarding unpopular, but very necessary decisions.
Whether looking at Trump’s election, Brexit or the neo-nazi campaigns in Europe – public opinion can be a very frightening thing. As masters of building public opinion we have very serious questions to raise every day; do we follow or lead public opinion, and how far?
Reputation Management – Massive Impact and Responsibility
As you all may know, PR is one of the most stressful professions along firefighters and airline pilots. However, I’ve never regretted my choice to become a PR person, or rather as I like to say – a reputation management professional.
When I was young girl, I wanted to be a painter. Then somehow out of nowhere, I got this idea that I should break things – that I should strive for a larger impact – so I decided to become a journalist. Then I got (I still remember) a green-colored book about US president George Bush
Sr. and his team of advisors, who told him what to wear, what to do and what to say. At that moment I realized that there are people who might have a bigger impact than journalists, and maybe even politicians.
Nevertheless, I am grateful for my choice to become a professional reputation driver. I firmly believe that for better or for worse, you can’t make anything big happen without successful communication.
PR can serve good purposes, but there is also a dark side. This is nothing new on one hand, but in our history we have never experienced public manipulation on this scale and speed, where communication has become a weapon of mass distraction, which nobody can really control. We should all be alert – what are the purposes of our actions? What impact are we driving with our communications efforts?
Do the Ends Justify the Means?
A couple of days ago I took another look at my LSE thesis. It was on the modernisation, or Americanisation of political campaigns. I have to admit it’s quite outdated research when compared to the strategies and tactics of today’s political campaigning. The very first sentence was actually the following: “The ways in which democracies conduct election campaigns are as important as the outcome of elections”. The Machiavellian idea on whether the “end justifies the means” is still a relevant question to challenge – whether it is in politics, business or sports.
I will leave it here and welcome Alastair on stage!