Defending LabourList and knocking the smears about RedRag

As a public relations and social media specialist I’ve had lots of people asking me to comment on the Red Rag blog and Damian McBride’s resignation. I’ve resisted the temptation to become a ‘rent-a-gob’ in the media and haven’t yet responded to those who’ve emailed me and direct messaged me on Twitter. I thought I’d wait until the dust had settled, but as it doesn’t appearing to be settling I might as well have my two pennarth now.

First up I’m not going to be an apologist for Damian McBride. He was totally and utterly wrong to send the emails he did. It was right for him to go, but wrong for him to have been given the opportunity to resign. If what he did wasn’t gross misconduct then the special adviser contracts need to be redrawn. He should have been sacked. That would have sent a far clearer signal from No 10 that this type of behaviour by a special adviser isn’t acceptable and wasn’t sanctioned by Gordon Brown.

However, it has all been blown up out of all proportion. What McBride did might have been odious, but it is in a long tradition of political smearing. Bernard Ingham as Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary did more than his fair share of smearing. The Tories under Cameron aren’t as squeaky clean as he’d like you to think. You’d have to be incredibly naive or stupid not to believe leaking sleaze isn’t part of Andy Coulson’s strategy.

So what should happen now? What shouldn’t happen is that Labour retreats bruised and battered from the blogosphere. My recommendations are:

Don’t listen to the self-appointed social media and blog experts

OK, I know I’m guilty of appearing to be one myself, but at least I do it from a history of 20 years as an award-winning public relations professional and Labour Party activist who now runs a company specialising in providing online public relations advice to big brands, the public sector and not-for-profits. Advert over! Most of the commentators and pundits don’t have a clue about the difficulties of doing ‘proper’ social media within the confines of politics and government. Despite Derek Draper’s mistakes (most of which he’s admitted and said he’s learnt from) he deserves the credit for actually doing something and persuading senior party figures to do something.

Actually have a coherent online communications strategy

An initiative here, an initiative there isn’t the way to do it. Labour must have a clear and coherent online communications strategy as an integral part of its overall election and communications strategy. It’s not an optional extra or bolt-on part to how we communicate with voters (not to). Neither, as some online pundits and enthusiasts would have, is it the most important part of the strategy. The next general election is not going to be lost or even fought much online. But online is going to play an important part, however small.

Appoint an MP to lead the online communications strategy

Labour is a political movement, not just a company or organisation. It therefore needs political leadership. The Tories have Jeremy Hunt MP providing political leadership. Labour should have either Tom Harris MP or Kerry McCarthy MP (who has one of the best set of blog house rules I’ve seen – My blog = My rules!).

LabourList must continue

It’s got lots wrong with it, but nothing that can’t be fixed. I’d start with the technology and dump the proprietary system from Tangent Labs and replace it with something that doesn’t look like it’s been designed as part of a school project. I’m an online enthusiast and even I find LabourList to be unfriendly and clunky to use. Build it on a robust, open platform that is low cost, future proof and feature rich. I’d recommend Drupal. Set it up right so you get proper full feeds and easy to use comments.

It needs to have a more public team of editors, rather than just Derek Draper. Content needs to continue to be from a good mix of local activists and high profile figures such as cabinet ministers. The new design needs to feature other Labour online initiatives more prominently (e.g. John Prescott and Alistair Campbell).

Facilitate more blogs by members and councillors

Before the 1997 election Peter Mandelson used to talk a lot about the air war and the ground war and the need to win both. The air war was what happened in the national media, the ground war was activists out in the community. In the blogosphere the right (in the form of ConservativeHome, Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes) is winning the air war with LabourList making a valiant effort to catch up. But I think the war that really matters, and will win the election for Labour, is the ground war where it’s still all to play for. There are good examples of Labour, Tory and Lib Dem local blogs, but no party is dominating this space. Labour can dominate it, but it means trusting local members (never call them just ordinary members!) and letting go of the old command and control models (which has always been more of a media myth than reality anyway).

Once again it’s not by using proprietary technology. It’s about using free stuff and offering up things like decent WordPress templates. Then provide training to members with existing social media skills so that they become more proficient and can cascade the training to other members. Just offering this up to members and councillors as a carrot won’t be enough, there needs to be an element of stick to encourage activists and councillors to at least learn about it (although we shouldn’t try to force them to do it).

Lay off Tom Watson MP

Tom Watson is doing a fantastic job as Minister for Digital Engagement and none of this is his fault. The Tories and muck rakers should get back in their boxed and realise that in promoting digital engagement he’s doing a fantastic job for the long-term future of this country and he’s the most qualified Labour MP to do it. So don’t muck it up for the country by playing petty party politics.

And finally…

It’s also worth reading this thoughtful post by PR academic Richard Bailey and this staunch defence of LabourList by Mark Hanson.

Apologies for those of you who received a half written post, I accidentally hit a short cut key in Windows Live Writer. Duh!

Stuart Bruce

International Public Relations Adviser | Trainer | Author | Media Commentator | Conference Speaker | University Lecturer | Online PR | Digital Corporate Communications | Crisis Communications | Digital Public Affairs