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Ivory Tower: the UK’s premier university media relations agency meets a new client

Somewhere in SW1…

McCall: [on the telephone]: What do you mean £895? Seriously? For one night in a BnB in Brighton? It’s the Labour Party conference, not the Super Bowl… Very well, I’ll take my custom elsewhere. Goodbye.

Janet: Still haven’t found somewhere to stay next week?

McCall: It’s a sign, Janet. Time was when you could book out the entire top floor of the Adelphi in Liverpool for £50 when Jeremy Corbyn was leader. We were the only people at the conference, apart from Labour Friends of Cuba and Maxine Peake. Half the parliamentary party didn’t bother to show up. Now you can’t get a bottom bunk in Worthing for under £500.

Janet: It’s the pandemic, innit.

McCall: Is it?

Janet: It’s the first time people have been allowed out to a big event for ages. That’s why it’s busy.

McCall: If by “people” you mean members of the press and the public relations industry, and if by “big event” you mean walking past someone being blown about on the Sussex seafront while handing out leaflets deploring the lack of vegan options in the military canteens in the Chagos Islands, then, yes, you might be right.

Janet: Do you want me to have a look for you, Mr McCall? There’s a new app you could try called Junket. It brings together all your executive travel and conference needs in one handy place.

McCall: That would be great. I’m very busy with this new account.

Janet: Is that the guidance on communicating around Coronavirus outbreaks in halls of residence during Freshers Week?

McCall: No, I’ve finished that. Advice to vice-chancellors was quite simple in the end.

Janet: What was it?

McCall: Don’t start teaching until mid-October. Make sure some other schmuck starts first so they end up on Sky News instead of you.

Janet: What’s this one, then?

McCall: It’s a truly wicked problem, over recruitment. Some poor students who thought they were moving into halls in the west end of Glasgow have been offered accommodation in Paisley.

Janet: Where’s that, Mr McCall?

McCall: Let’s just say it’s as far away from the west end of Glasgow as you can get.

Janet: Further than London?

McCall: Considerably.

Janet: Didn’t I read about students at York being offered places to stay in Hull?

McCall: Yes, we are calling that one an enrichening travel experience as part of early career professional development.

Janet: Meaning, the students get to commute to lectures?

McCall: It’s only one and a quarter hours. It’s not as if it’s like from one end of the northern line to the other.

[Enter Alexander Juniper, senior partner]

Juniper: Look lively, we have a new client arriving in a minute.

McCall: The limit of your contribution to this agency might be sending wine back at the Ivy, but some of us have been working since dawn’s early light.

Juniper: And how is dawn these days? Is she well? Martyrdom doesn’t suit you, Oliver. I don’t think you are responding positively to being back in the office.

McCall: Never thought I would miss Microsoft Teams. At least then when the minister wittered on, I could switch my camera off and go make a cup of tea.

Juniper: Speaking of wittering ministers, have you finished that brief for Gavin Williamson?

McCall: “Ten things to do now that your political career is dead?”

Juniper: That’s the one.

McCall: I’m up to seven, just after Dancing on Ice with Holly Willoughby and running your own PPE manufacturing company.

Juniper: Have you done, deliver birthday wishes on Cameo?

McCall: Yes, right after make a documentary about great bus journeys across Yorkshire.

Juniper: Maybe he could do corporate awards ceremonies for the ceramics industry?

McCall: I’ve had to cut the one that said, remain relevant by appearing as a regular commentator on GB News.

Janet: It looks like your new client has arrived, Mr Juniper.

Juniper: Excellent, do come in Nadhim, or shall we call you, Naz?

Nadhim: No, secretary of state will do.

Juniper: Very well, secretary of state, you have met our degree apprentice Janet already? And this is the other half of Juniper-McCall University Media Relations, head of misinformation and backtracking, Oliver McCall.

Nadhim: They say you are the smart one.

McCall: They can be so kind when they want to be.

Nadhim: I used to be in the public opinion business myself—hardest game in the world that.

McCall: YouGov?

Nadhim: No Gove got housing, I’m Zahawi.

McCall: How almost comical. I’ve been meaning to ask about YouGov’s methodology.

Zahawi: It’s scientific.

McCall: Is it? I’ve just been looking at this ranking of the most popular Labour politicians, ahead of the conference, you know.

Zahawi: Yes?

McCall: Well, Keir Starmer is fifth.

Zahawi: And?

McCall: Just above Dennis Skinner, who isn’t an MP anymore.

Zahawi: That’s correct.

McCall: It says that Starmer is recognised by 93 per cent of people, but liked by only 23 per cent.

Zahawi: What can I say? He’s less popular than Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham.

McCall: Who aren’t MPs either.

Zahawi: No, they are not.

McCall: But the most popular Labour people, according to YouGov, are Gordon Brown and, unbelievably, Ed Balls, who is liked by a stonking 30 per cent of people.

Zahawi: He’s got his own TV show, that helps.

McCall: But neither of them are MPs, so in fact Keir Starmer, according to your own data, is the most popular Labour MP.

Zahawi: Technically.

McCall: Scientifically.

Juniper: Now, let’s not question another man’s peer-reviewed polling data—that’s not the done thing in this industry. No one is gaslighting anyone else.

McCall: Quite, have you seen the price of gas?

Juniper: Perhaps the secretary of state could let us know how we can help him today.

Zahawi: I’ll come straight to the point. The last guy left the place in a mess. I just can’t get my head round what he was trying to do.

McCall: You and most of the country.

Zahawi: The policies all seem contradictory, but I think what we do next will come down to the answer to the question, are too many young people going to university?

Juniper: And you would like Juniper-McCall to undertake a complete cost-benefit analysis to the UK economy of a flexible, highly skilled graduate workforce in a post-pandemic, post-Brexit climate change context?

Zahawi: No, I want to know what people think so I can give our voters what they want.

McCall: That sort of in-depth, opinion-tracking takes time, and indeed money. Perhaps if the secretary of state were to agree to roll over Juniper-McCall’s retainer with the department, we could…

Zahawi: We’ve all been asked to make savings in our departmental budgets, so consider this a test as to whether we continue with past, expensive arrangements.

Juniper: Secretary of state, we cannot possibly be expected to work for free…

Zahawi: Other agencies are available.

Janet: I’ve got some data on that.

Zahawi: Have you?

Janet: Yes. We monitor public opinion on this highly pertinent question monthly.

Zahawi: Do you?

Juniper: Do we?

Janet: Certainly, I’ve taken the liberty of printing out the results of our tracker poll. As you can see, 42 per cent of people currently think that too many school leavers go to university in Britain, and only 17 per cent think that not enough do.

Zahawi: That’s brilliant. That’s what I need, firm evidence that it’s the right thing to do to have more trainee plumbers, and that we should be cutting back on ridiculous university media relations contracts.

Janet: Not so fast, secretary of state. While 17 per cent think that not enough people go to university, 19 per cent think that just about the right amount do, while 22 per cent say they don’t know and what’s that got to do with who is going to win Strictly?

Zahawi: Still, 42 per cent is a big number.

Janet: Yes, but that means 58 per cent of people do not agree that too many people go to university.

McCall: That’s science.

Janet: The tracker poll fluctuates; in May it was as low as 37 per cent of people who think too many kids go to university.

Juniper: That’s not a very big number at all.

Janet: In fact, it is what we would call in the polling industry a “minority opinion”. The question tracks below the government’s own polls rating, meaning it is not a view held by all of the government’s own supporters, or, as you so accurately put it, secretary of state, “our voters”.

Zahawi: Well, this has been extremely informative. Thank you for that. I’ll have my officials draw up a new Juniper-McCall contract to cover the rest of this parliament. I hope to see you this evening at the Downing Street reception. The ministerial jag is parked on a double yellow, got to go. [He leaves]

McCall: That was magnificent Janet, well done for inventing that polling data.

Janet: I didn’t invent it.

Juniper: You mean, we really do track public opinion on major issues and don’t just ask your cousin’s WhatsApp group?

Janet: No, I took it from the YouGov website.

McCall: Really? I thought that was all about, what’s your favourite soap powder, and do you like the new Doctor Who?

Janet: There are lots of things on there—I wrote about it for an assignment I had to do for college.

Juniper: Like what?

Janet: 47 per cent of people think university should be paid for by those who attend it. 52 per cent do not think that a degree at an English university represents good value for money. 43 think the number of international students entering the UK is just about right. 62 per cent think students should have both vaccines before returning to uni.

McCall: It’s a treasure trove.

Juniper: I think the secretary of state can expect a highly polished and very expensive data set of public opinion on higher education landing on his desk on Monday morning.

McCall: You know, I’m feeling much better Alexander, but I think there’s one thing that might help me readjust to office working again.

Juniper: Lunch at Claridge’s?

Janet: I’ve already reserved a table for two.

McCall: For three, Janet, for three.

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