Whelan to put spin on AUT image

May 26, 2000

The Association of University Teachers has hired former Treasury spin-doctor Charlie Whelan to help shake off its "stuffy" image.

The AUT is determined to win the hearts and minds of tabloid newspaper readers as part of a public relations drive to sell the university sector's message to the wider world - and increase electoral pressure on ministers to find extra cash for higher education.

AUT general secretary David Triesman denied this week that hiring the former righthand man of chancellor Gordon Brown would give him a direct line to those who hold the Treasury purse strings.

"I have not asked Mr Whelan any questions about the Treasury, whatever his relationship with the chancellor may or may not be. I've been meticulous in avoiding these questions. The task of understanding what concerns ministers should be dealt with by myself, through my own relationships with ministers and civil servants."

The AUT has hired Mr Whelan's public relations consultancy, Know Comment, which is run with former BBC producer Jo Phillips. Mr Triesman insists that the job was properly tendered, although Mr Triesman and Mr Whelan share a passion for Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. "I do meet him at White Hart Lane," said Mr Triesman, "but we went to a number of different potential advisers and Know Comment were not much off the lowest of the tenders and they were prepared to do a lot more."

Mr Whelan's first task is to prepare an "upfront" diagnosis on the AUT's image. The diagnosis has not been good. "We have found that we are very worthy, with solid and well-researched data, but this is often presented in a way that appears as if it is only supposed to appeal to our own community," said Mr Triesman. "We need to tell people what higher education is all about."

"Many people still think the university system is no different from the days of Brideshead Revisited. We must get across the sense that this is a huge engine of economic growth, with research that is vital for the economy."

Mr Triesman expects his officers to be "media savvy" and well briefed after "sophisticated training" by Whelan.

Mr Whelan notoriously quit as chancellor Gordon Brown's media adviser in December 1998 following a row over the influence of spin-doctors.

Mr Triesman said he could not reveal the value of Mr Whelan's contract for commercial reasons.

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