Transforming Boris Article icon


Britain's sportsmen and women overdelivered; London's infrastructure defied its critics and perceptions of disabled athletes will never be the same. But there's only one winner of the gold medal for political capital gained from the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

Step forward Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Probably the only British political figure who could emerge with his reputation enhanced by being left to dangle above Hackney on a zip wire, he's long been escaping crises that would floor most rivals.

Johnson ostracised virtually Liverpool's entire population in 2004 when an editorial in The Spectator magazine that he edited described the city as 'wallowing in victim status' after the murder in Iraq of hostage Ken Bigley.
A month later, he was sacked from Michael Howard's shadow cabinet for allegedly lying about an affair, but he has since won two London mayoral elections and become almost a national treasure.
Feted for his offbeat style and outspoken views, which have ranged from criticising St Patrick's Day celebrations as 'lefty crap' to stating of Prince Harry's naked Las Vegas frolics that it would be 'disgraceful if a chap wasn't allowed to have a bit of fun in Las Vegas,' he was maybe made for the London Olympics.
They certainly seem his finest hour yet, with his tousled looks, indefatigable personality and almost peerless ability to produce sparkling and apparently off-the-cuff prose catapulting him into the nation's affections.
Flying frisbees 
So much so indeed, that his 2003 claim that he had as much chance of becoming Prime Minister as he did of being 'decapitated by a frisbee', might yet have makers of the flying plastic discs taking out political event insurance.
So how has Brand Boris achieved such a gargantuan turnaround? As with most Johnson-related topics, it's a debate that fiercely divides.
Some communications experts hail his high intellect, political acumen and eye for a chance, while others don't even accept that there's been a turnaround, but it's difficult to dispute that he's one of a kind.
'In a colourless political world, Brand Boris appears original, authentic and frequently compelling,' says Ross Gow, managing director of reputation management and public relations firm Acuity Reputation.
Gow, an adviser to Johnson's 'Back Boris' campaign to be re-elected as London mayor earlier this year, believes his successful re-election was partly due to him being presented as an outsider but adds: 'That façade hides an entrenched political ambition. He's better attuned to London's power game than anyone else and he's brilliant at delivering and accepting the credit for the grand symbolic gesture.'
There's little doubt that Johnson makes the most of opportunities to make political capital. 'Because his personality is so individual, it allows him to take a maverick stance from a political standpoint,' says Deborah Saw, managing director of Newgate PR.
'As London mayor, he has one of the best jobs in politics and he and his team pick the areas to speak out on very, well. He's not as spontaneous as he makes out. Everything is very well-planned.'
Timing is everything
Indeed, Johnson chose to reignite the debate about London's airports precisely when the Olympics were demonstrating a notable British infrastructure success. 
'He's chosen his soundbites and photo opportunities very carefully around that theme,' adds Saw. 'Even when he got stuck on a wire suspended over London, everyone just said That's just Boris for you.'
Few other modern politicians have had such a varied, highprofile and inevitably controversial career. The eldest of four children of former Conservative MEP Stanley Johnson, Boris's background is rich in European aristocracy, with his father's maternal grandmother a descendant of Prince Paul of Wurttemberg, through whom he is a descendant of King George II.
Eton, Balliol College and the Oxford Union presidency followed before Johnson embarked on a journalistic career that saw him sacked after a year as a trainee reporter for The Times after falsifying a quotation from his godfather Colin Lucas, later Oxford University's vice-chancellor. He bounced back with Latin-peppered columns in The Daily Telegraph, gained The Spectator editorship and was then elected to Parliament at the second attempt, soon becoming Shadow Arts Minister.
The Liverpool comments, which also referred to the role played by fans of the city's eponymous football team in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster - something now refuted by the official report into the tragedy - are commonly seen as the lowest ebb of Johnson's political career, with his renaissance therefore a study of how reputations can be rebuilt.
Back from the brink
Alex Deane, head of public affairs at public relations group Weber Shandwick, doesn't agree. He says Johnson's nadir came in 1995 when a taped telephone conversation revealed him agreeing under pressure to supply to former schoolmate Darius Guppy the private address and telephone number of News of the World journalist Stuart Collier, who Guppy said he wished to have beaten up.
'The remarkable thing about Boris Johnson is what people don't remember about him,' says Deane. 'That would have finished any other political career.'
Other communicators say Johnson's is a rare case that owes as much to astute strategic planning as it does to unique personality.'Johnson's transformation is in part the product of the passage of time and in part the product of a concerted effort by his image team and spin-meisters,' says Gow.
'His astonishing reversal of fortune since roundly abusing Liverpudlians in 2004 is no accident. Behind the scenes he had the formidable talents of the Australian election strategist Lynton Crosby, whose 'doughnut strategy' of ruthlessly targeting Tory-leaning voters on the edge of the capital proved to be a masterstroke.
'In leafier constituencies Johnson was portrayed as the saviour of gardens and green space, and the only one to open a debate on killing off expansion plans for Heathrow, situated in the heart of marginal Tory seats.'
Careful media appearances
Johnson's image team, aware that their man remained gaffe-prone, deliberately turned down interview requests from the mainstream print and broadcast media, instead using safer options on LBC radio and daytime television interviews to parade their candidate.
His comic instincts and celebrity characteristics had meanwhile long been showcased with TV appearances on Question Time and Have I Got News For You. Asked during one hustings debate whether he had ever had sex with a man, he brought the house down by replying 'Not yet,' while he allegedly once told voters: 'If you vote for the Conservatives, your wife will get bigger breasts and your chances of driving a BMW M3 will increase.'
Deane argues that Johnson's PR success has three key constituents: the taking of enormous political risks on issues like 'Boris Island', making a splash on memorable initiatives, like London's so-called 'Boris bikes' and abolition of bendy buses and obtaining extremely clever political advice.
Andrew Caesar-Gordon, managing director of media training consultancy Electric Airwaves, goes further. 'I don't think there has been a public relations turnaround by Boris Johnson,' he comments.
'The reality is that Boris is Boris. He's a caricature of himself and there is no difference between how he was in Liverpool and how he is now. He's just carried on being Boris and the public have accepted him.'
The trouble with translating that to the corporate area is that Johnson's style is extremely difficult to replicate there. Very few mavericks stand out, with the notable exceptions of Ryanair's Michael O'Leary and Sir Richard Branson.
'He communicates in a way that's irreverent but relevant,' says Jonathan Chandler, partner at reputation management consultancy Reputation Inc. 'When you combine being candid with being able to appeal to large areas of the political constituency, that's pretty powerful. In a corporate environment with legal departments becoming ever more important, it's very hard to do that effectively.'
Chandler adds, however: 'One thing for sure is candour. Companies have much to learn in terms of willingness to be candid. Boris gets it right more than he gets it wrong and he has a strong sense of what matters most to the public.' 
Unrestrained comments
Similarly, Caesar-Gordon argues that there are limits to even Johnson's maverick style. 'At the Olympics parade after the Games, Boris said that Britain had got more medals than France, Germany and Australia,' he observes.
'You can say that if you're Mayor of London because it suits someone who is a celebrity politician but you can't if you're Prime Minister. The interesting question is that if he was Prime Minister, would those same people who find him fun now want him as their leader?'
Caesar-Gordon adds: 'If there's a lesson to learned, it's about understanding your personal brand. Many companies have invested in their corporate narrative and need a leader who understands it and behaves accordingly. It's about understanding your brand and how to amend it to suit what your audience wants.' Whether Johnson can extend that ability to successfully occupying 10 Downing Street would provide his biggest test, however. 'Boris has his London stage right now,' says Saw. 'He's a man for his time and his place. If he is to translate that into national political success, that'll be one hell of a trick.'