Operation Sarah: How the PM's wife is rebranding herself

Editing the News of the World's magazine, marching at Gay Pride, tweeting at G8 – Sarah Brown is running a public relations campaign. So who is she targeting? And what is she hoping to achieve? Ian Burrell studies her strategy
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Indy Politics

When Gordon Brown sat down at a press conference at the G8 summit in Italy last week and solemnly pronounced that allegations of phone-hacking by The News of the World constituted a "very serious" matter, he may not have given much thought as to who exactly will be editing that newspaper's magazine, Fabulous, this weekend.

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