Operation Sarah: How the Prime Minister’s wife is rebranding herself

But as his cabinet colleagues still seek to make political capital out of the
row, and as angry MPs summon executives from the paper’s parent company to
come before them and answer questions, Mr Brown’s wife, Sarah, is eagerly
anticipating the publication of her own journalistic efforts in that very
same title.

Last Sunday, with Labour hoping that the claims could yet undermine David
Cameron by shaming his Tory communications chief Andy Coulson, The News of
the World did not pass up the opportunity to celebrate its connections with
Number 10. The paper’s editor, Colin Myler, said he felt “proud and
privileged” to have Brown edit the newpsaper’s magazine. “She
devoted a great deal of time to editing this unique issue, interviewing
cover star Jools Oliver, wife of TV chef Jamie, about her fertility
experiences,” he said. “She came into the office and co-ordinated
features, including one about five inspiring women who had babies… as well
as Dr Hilary Jones’s guide to tackling a host of women’s health problems.”

Sarah Brown crops up in an awful lot of places these days. The previous
weekend she had been on the Gay Pride march in London, striding forth
alongside gay MEP Michael Cashman and waving a pink Union flag. She was
photographed at the Glastonbury festival last month, donning Water Aid
charity wellies and sharing a polka dot umbrella with Naomi Campbell, having
previously joined the supermodel and the socialite Paris Hilton for dinner
at the African Ladies Health Summit in Los Angeles.

And, of course, during last week she was at her husband’s side in Italy, where
she kept everyone up to date with a blog, “Sarah Brown at the G8”,
posted on Downing Street’s website, Number10.gov.uk.

“Up at the crack of dawn to set off for the G8 in Italy!” she began. “There’s
a busy few days ahead for me as part of the spouses programme while Gordon
is at the summit. But I’m really looking forward to meeting up with the
‘other halves’ ? some of them I have met before from last year’s G8 and the
G20 in London.”

The next day she posted up a picture from the Vatican, captioned “Meeting
His Holiness the Pope”, before visiting the earthquake-torn town of
L’Aquila, then heading off for an Italian cultural tour where for lunch she
had “green pea (yes, green!) ice-cream as a starter”.

Much of the online traffic to this blog will have come via Mrs Brown’s
personal Twitter feed, “SarahBrown10”, the real time social
networking site on which she has built an extraordinary following of nearly
380,000, and from where she encourages engagement with good causes such as
Million Mums, a charity she helped to launch to combat deaths in childbirth.

On Twitter, Sarah is commended by followers for her refusal to eat veal at the
G8, and she posts a Twitpic of herself in a black veil, solemnly shaking
hands with the Pope and captioned “At the Vatican”. Nearly all the
responses, including one that observes “You look very devout and
suitably angelic”, are positive.

Sarah Brown is not a natural extrovert but she is a public relations
professional, and it shows. She was a co-founder of the “ethical PR”
specialist firm Hobsbawm Macaulay, before being hired to work in the arts
division of Alan Parker’s international Brunswick empire.

At Brunswick she worked with David Yelland, a partner in the financial PR
company and a former editor of The Sun. For years Brown has been compared
with the out-going ? and oft-maligned ? Cherie Blair and portrayed as a
relatively retiring figure, but Yelland has been impressed by the way his
friend has taken charge of raising her own profile.

“I think the treatment meted out to Cherie Blair, especially towards the
end of Tony’s time, was unfair, sexist and just nasty frankly. Sarah has
tackled it by just being Sarah,” he says, before praising her use of
new media as a direct line of communication.

“She knows that, as with Cherie, the media might be difficult, so she has
gone around it using Twitter. She’s out-Twittered her enemies and connected
with people in a way that shows the real Sarah. If Gordon could find a way
to do that we might be in a different ballgame.

“Sarah has become the other half of Gordon in a profound way. She feels a
great injustice is being done to one of the cleverest and most moral of
Prime Ministers we have had since the war.”

So what is Sarah Brown’s strategy? Does she even have one? Danny Rogers,
editor of the industry magazine PR Week, describes the Downing Street’s
first lady’s media onslaught as “a bit scattergun”.

“She’s trying a bit of everything: Twitter, photos with famous people,
meetings with powerful women from around the world. One moment she’s
pictured with Paris Hilton and the next she’s giving tips on cooking,”
he says, referring to the revelation that Sarah has been charming Gordon’s
cabinet colleagues with her pasta, the so-called “Lasagne Offensive”.

“There doesn’t seem like a definite theme ? it’s like she’s raising her
profile across the board,” says Rogers.

“She’s an asset for Gordon, but the question is how to focus on specific
themes, and at the moment that strategy is not emerging.”

The role of the partner of a political leader has grown immeasurably in recent
years. There was never much media interest in Audrey, the wife of James
Callaghan (the last Labour Prime Minister before Tony Blair), in spite of
her admirable campaigning on children’s health issues. Cherie has changed
the game, as has a greater awareness of the impact on US politics of First
Ladies from Hillary Clinton to the glamorous and stylish Michelle Obama ? in
the company of whom Sarah Brown was photographed during the tour of damaged
buildings in L’Aquila.

One publicist said Brown needed to be careful not to be drawn into a fashion
parade in front of the cameras. “She’s not competing in the beauty
stakes, or trying to play the fashion game – she’s not Carla Bruni-Sarkozy
or Michelle Obama. But she does have some sort of resonance with Middle
England.”

The consistent thread that has run though Sarah Brown’s recent media blitz has
been women’s health. This weekend’s edition of Fabulous is themed on that
same issue and is linked to the charity Wellbeing of Women, of which Ms
Brown is patron. “I wanted to reach women and encourage them to take
care of their own wellbeing, always to seek early medical help for any
concerns and to get all the regular checks,” she said in a prepared
statement. “This special issue of Fabulous is for every woman in
Britain. Hopefully it will help them to a healthier future.”

Alan Edwards, CEO of The Outside Organisation, which represents stars such as
David Bowie and Naomi Campbell, helped to organise the photo-opportunity at
Glastonbury, which once again had the added benefit of promoting women’s
health.

“They met through Naomi’s charity catwalk show, Fashion for Relief, which
partnered with The White Ribbon Alliance (WRA), which is a fantastic
coalition of on-the-ground organisations dedicated to reducing maternal
mortality in developing countries,” he says.

“As a result of the work of Sarah and Naomi in the past year, global
membership of the WRA has more than tripled. We’re more than happy to help
do what we can to help build awareness for such a good cause.”

Sarah Brown can seek high-level advice from other sources, too, from Simon
Lewis, the former Vodafone communications chief who has just joined Downing
Street, to Richard Wallace, editor of the Daily Mirror, and the
ever-intuitive Peter Mandelson. It is widely known in the PR industry that
she is no longer so close to Julia Hobsbawm, her former PR partner, who has
since built a successful business, Editorial Intelligence, which analyses
the output of key media commentators.

According to Colin Byrne, CEO of the major PR consultancy Weber Shandwick and
a former chief press officer for the Labour Party, Brown is largely relying
on her own judgement. “Yes, she’s a seasoned PR professional, but I
don’t think this is at all conventional PR. I think this is just part of her
natural warmth and charm. I think she is trusting her instincts.”

Because a lot of her profile-raising activity is taking place online, there is
a limit to how much learning she can take on board from her old PR contacts
anyway, as Danny Rogers points out.

“The really interesting areas are the Twitter and new media strategy.
It’s all very well going to drinks parties with Rebekah Wade (the chief
executive of News International, whose wedding party Sarah Brown recently
attended), but it’s difficult when you are trying to engage with a mass
audience like Twitter and Facebook, where the rules are less clear and the
backlash is potentially more savage. Twitter is pretty much uncharted
territory.”

The publicist Mark Borkowski, a prolific user of new media, believes that
Sarah Brown has shown herself far more adept in this area than her husband
could ever hope to be. “She is operating in areas where he doesn’t have
any hope of generating traction,” he says. “He cannot YouTube, she
can. He cannot Twitter, she can. Gordon can’t generate sympathetic votes,
she can, particularly from women. They’re trying to turn her into a yin to
his yang.”

Borkowski traces the origins of Sarah Brown’s strategy back to last year’s
Labour Party conference in Manchester, when she stepped up to the microphone
in defence of her under-attack husband. “Some people at the time
claimed she needed to be arm-twisted into that but actually it was a bit of
a toe in the water to see how it would go.”

Despite her PR background, it will not have been easy for her. She once said
of the Hobsbawm Macaulay way of working: “Julia goes out to lunch with
people so I don’t have to.” One industry source recalls that “She
never really hung out with the PR crowd.”

The media commentator and author, Peter York, who has known her since her days
in PR, says that she is not extrovert but is none the less a more effective
communicator than her husband. “She’s not a person who instinctively
likes putting herself forward, but she realises she has to. She’s obviously
Gordon’s greatest humanising advantage ? she can talk human,” he
says. “And as a PR she did operate in quasi-political areas. Hobsbawm
Macaulay didn’t sell face cream. They were selling the New Statesman and
ideas, doing ethical PR. So she knows what she’s doing.”

The most important question, of course, is whether all this activity will be
effective. According to one senior PR professional, it won’t. “It’s
completely irrelevant. She can project as much as she wants and be seen in
the company of Michelle Obama, but she does not run the country, the economy
or the Labour party,” he says. “I don’t think this will make 0.01
per cent of difference to Labour’s ratings in the opinion polls. She’s doing
her bit to support her beleaguered husband, who lacks a lot of the
personality traits she has. But it’s completely irrelevant to the big
picture, which is Gordon Brown versus David Cameron.”

Gary Farrow, CEO of The Corporation, the publicists for big entertainment
stars such as Elton John and Jeremy Clarkson, is rather less sympathetic. “It’s
desperation of the highest form, anything for a photo-opportunity, and
strategy doesn’t come into it,” he says. “Come June, the strategy
is going to be based around the Job Centre.”

One figure, who knows Sarah Brown well, believes she is simply being pragmatic
and attempting to use the platform she currently has to raise awareness of
the things that matter most to her. “Hobsbawm Macaulay had their niche,
a soft feminist, soft arts stance combined with charity work and
fundraising. I think Sarah has the view that she will use her brief time at
Number 10 to do that stuff. She’s approaching it in exactly the same way as
the Prime Minister himself, which is to say: ‘I’ve got a year, let’s make
the most of it’ ? and then dust off the CV.”

If Sarah Brown does find herself having to move house next summer, it’s
unlikely that her CV will be wending its way to the inboxes of the big PR
consultancies. Her recent media drive has helped to raise her status to a
different level entirely. “I think she will do stuff in the voluntary
sector, chairing a charity,” says one observer. “I don’t think she
would go back into commercial PR. That would be a bit grubby after all that
she’s done.”

Tweets from Downing Street

http://twitpic.com/afa9z Trying to post my ‘Editor At Work’ shot up for my new
profile pic, but it is too big! Off to get a smaller one.

about 3 hours ago from TwitPic

Am hoping that no veal served at lunch again today ? have declined it twice
this trip as just feel very strongly about it

7:19 AM Jul 10th from web

Very inspired by everyone at the Fabian Women’s evening this evening ? what an
energetic bunch determined to do some good in the world

about 23 hours ago from TweetDeck

Exit strategies: What could Mrs Brown do next?

Be a poet

Back in 1970, there were three living poets whose works had broken into the
mass market. They were Marc Bolan, Bob Dylan, and Mary Wilson (above, with
her husband). The hardback edition of Mrs Wilson’s ‘Selected Poems’ sold
75,000 copies, at 12 shillings each. “If I can write, before I die/One
line of purest poetry…Then I shall not have lived in vain,” she
wrote. Some might say that, sadly, she lived in vain.

Take it easy

Drink gin, play golf, and never speak to journalists. It worked for Denis
Thatcher, but then he had made a pile of money and could retire in 1975, the
year that the woman he called ‘The Boss’ became Leader of the Conservative
Party.

Write a book

A factual book related in some way to the unique experience of being married
to a Prime Minister will sell just on the strength of the name on the cover.
Original research is optional. On Amazon, a copy of ‘Chequers: The Prime
Minister’s Country House and Its History’, signed by the author, Norma
Major, costs £74.95 plus postage.

Run for office

If it had not been for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton might now be back in the
White House, where she was ‘First Lady’ for eight years, and Bill might be
America’s first ever ‘First Gentleman’. But in British politics, it could be
a tougher assignment, trying to find a constituency party in a safe seat
that is prepared to select the wife of the Prime Minister as their candidate.

Go on a lecture tour

Cherie Blair did not wait for Tony to leave Downing Street before she was
making serious money to help pay off the £3m mortgage on their home in
Connaught Square. The New York based Harry Walker agency sent out a
breathless email to clients in August 2004 with the “exciting”
news that “Cherie Blair, noted British attorney, human rights advocate
and the wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair” was on offer as a speaker,
for a fee that reputedly have varied between £25,000 and £160,000. Other
lucrative appearances followed.

Andy Mcsmith

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