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28 September 2007

Late nights, long walks and much dashing about

A day spent tackling Burma, Gaza, four Oxjam concerts, four recruitments and a potential office move

By Sam Barratt

As Head of Media for Oxfam, the party conference season is an important place to go and spend time with Britain’s most senior and influential journalists, to discuss issues of the day. There is a rich cast of characters who either are there hunting in the margins for something new, or for new ways to present old problems (Darfur being a classic head-scratcher for many), while others use it as an annual sojourn to keep up appearances.

Most of the newspaper editors come down and join their foot soldiers in the bunker of the carpark under the conference centre. Here, everyone from Jon Snow to Nick Robinson are crammed into a grey jungle of wires and tape, planning their verdicts on Brown’s speech.

One floor up, it was good to see old friends like Ros Wynne-Jones from The Mirror and Dave Wooding from The Sun who have both helped get Oxfam’s issues out in their respective but very different papers. At the same time, you also bump into the Head of Comms for the Premier League, Marketing Directors of Newspapers or Comment Editors who are all interested to hear how they can support Oxfam’s work.

We have been building up for the conference with our Go Gordon campaign which has been aiming to challenge him on having a fairer foreign policy, taking more drastic action on climate change and ensuring that they keep their aid commitments from two years ago.

From a campaigns and political perspective this has been very successful with some 11,000 people signing up in support of the campaign

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At the conference we have had a massive Gordon Brown head handing out our ethical fairtrade bags to delegates. That has been very well received. Even Sarah Brown, the Prime Minister’s wife, commented on how much she liked them.

In terms of publicity for our issues, it is hard to cut through, with space dominated by the political elite rather than commentators. Everyone takes your quotes and wants to know your opinions on subjects, but sadly, the space they have in the papers is often only for comments from the politicians themselves.

We trailed a poll in the papers in advance of the conference on the Saturday, which showed that only the British public have yet to decide whether Brown’s foreign policy is fair and just. This was picked up in The Independent and The Scotsman

The speeches on Darfur suggest this may be about to change, as this crisis was a dominant theme in the conference hall and fringe events. This was very positive to see. However, this is a conflict that still rages and 4 million people need the statements made in Dorset to turn into protection and safety. News from New York at the UN suggests that, sadly, the deployment of troops still looks like being a long way away.

At the event itself, we did manage to get a couple of good bits out on ITV regional news, and should make it into a package for the BBC politics show this weekend. But the real value from these events comes in the follow up conversations back in Westminster or with national newspaper editors, one of whom has agreed to travel with us to Darfur to give further publicity to the crisis, as we reach critical decision points in the coming weeks.

Despite the late nights, long walks and dashing around we have had a good conference with ministers being very receptive to our ideas, relationships with new outlets being developed and lots of food for thought for next year.

I am back in the office tomorrow to deal with Burma, Gaza, 4 Oxjam concerts, 4 recruitments and a potential office move. In comparison to the Labour Party Conference, it should be a nice relaxing day.

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