James Frayne

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James Frayne is a lobbyist who has worked in government (for the then education secretary Michael Gove at the UK Department for Education); in think tanks; and in commercial lobbying agencies.

Frayne has a repution for being one of the best of the current crop of Tory-leaning media strategists. Among critics he is known for his promotion of deceptive astroturf campaigns for business interests.

His lobbying firm Public First, for example, is focused on persuading the public to support the interests of his corporate clients. He was until recently also director policy and strategy at the Policy Exchange, a leading right-wing think tank.

'Expert' in public persuasion

In 2016 Frayne founded a lobbying firm Public First, which 'specialises in communicating with the general public about complex corporate and political issues.' The firm's focus is on changing public opinion in order to change political opinion, or as Public First's website puts it, they help clients to 'move public opinion and to mobilise it on their [his corporate clients'] behalf'[1]:

'With experience at the highest levels of Government, policy making and media relations, we believe reputations are made – and policy goals met – by engaging with the public.'

Frayne has 'extensive experience' in this field of using 'opinion research' and 'the methods and tools required to reach people'. A lot of its work 'takes place online using a mix of digital campaigning and microtargeting', but also includes 'advertising, policy research... direct mail and even physical grassroots campaigning when the job requires it'.[2]

The work also includes 'media relations'. As Frayne has said in the past: 'We have evolved a system which is highly accomplished at spinning the press.’[3]

Astroturfing

According to his former biography on the website of his former employer, lobbying agency Westbourne Communications, Frayne:

'pioneered the use of grassroots "people power" campaigns for business and campaign groups'.[4]He also claims to have successfully lobbied against government plans to increase taxes and regulation on businesses by ‘positioning ordinary people against elites’.

Frayne’s assertion that he pioneered the use of grassroots mobilisation on behalf of business is hard to prove. But he has clearly brought to the UK some of the lessons from America, where astroturfing is commonplace.

Education reform 'astroturf' group

Frayne is married to Rachel Wolf who, like Frayne, was an adviser to Michael Gove, and was the UK's free school champion. Wolf also lists herself as a director of lobbying firm Public First.[5]

In September 2016, Frayne and Wolf established a new lobby group called Parents and Teachers for Excellence (http://www.parentsandteachers.org.uk), which is calling for various education reforms, including more testing and stronger behaviour policies.

PTE is refusing to name its financial backers. It told Schools Week only that is being funded by a “small group of philanthropists”. PTE's directors are Jon Moynihan, a venture capitalist and chairman of the finance committee of Vote Leave, and Rachel de Souza, chief executive of the Inspiration Trust school chain.

The name of the lobby group suggests it is a grassroots organisation representing the voices of ordinary parents and teachers. However, its initial supporter list is dominated by policymakers, lobbyists and CEOs of large academy school chains, all of whom support market reforms in education. As Schools Week' noted:

The campaign has drawn parallels with what is known as “astroturfing” – the practice of masking sponsors of an organisation to push a public relations campaign as a grassroots movement. While at free market think tank Reform, Frayne is credited with setting up a similar organisation in the NHS, Doctors for Reform. The group claimed to represent 1,000 medical practitioners, but again did not disclose its funding.'[6]

PTE is said to have been influenced by StudentsFirst, the US education-reform lobby group led by vocal education reformer, Michelle Rhee. PTE’s strategists were reportedly impressed by StudentFirst's campaign as being the “right way to take the debate to ordinary people”. In 2012 Rhee spoke at an event held jointly by Wolf's New Schools Network) and Policy Exchange, where Frayne worked. StudentsFirst was also criticised for not disclosing its funders, although it is known to have received funds from Michael Bloomberg, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and $8 million from the Walton Family Foundation. In 2016 StudentsFirst merged with the education reform lobby group 50CAN.

Doctors for Reform front group

While at the free market think tank Reform, Frayne managed the launch of the campaign group, Doctors for Reform. This claimed to represent a membership of 1000 ordinary medical practitioners in favour of a reformed health service, but did not disclose its funding. Frayne argued that the remit for Doctors for Reform was to mobilise hundreds of senior NHS doctors in favour of a reformed health service. Changes advocated by the group included introducing ‘an insurance element’ into the NHS in addition to state funding, and a system of top-up payments. Both proposals undermine the foundation of the NHS as a universal, free at the point of use healthcare system. Both would benefit the private health insurance industry. Prudential, the insurance giant behind PruHealth, was Reform’s most generous sponsor in 2012, investing £67,500 in the think tank.

Taxpayers Alliance

The Taxpayers Alliance, where Frayne was campaign director, also presents itself as a 'grassroots' organisation, yet refuses to disclose its funders. It also networks with US groups accused of engaging in astroturf campaigns, like Americans for Prosperity, funded by the oil billionaire David Koch. The TPA is explicit in its aim of ‘challenging the consensus’ to create a low-tax Britain. ‘That will not happen overnight,’ warned Frayne in 2006. ‘It will take years . . . decades perhaps.'[7]

'Astroturfers'-for-hire

Frayne has also worked for commercial lobbying firm Westbourne Communications, which is upfront about its astroturfing: ‘We know how to mobilise public voices behind our clients to change opinion,’ Westbourne claims. The firm has since run various such campaigns, including the controversial astroturf Campaign for High Speed Rail.


Appealing to emotion over reason

In 2013, Frayne wrote an article on ‘The power of emotion in political campaigns’ for the influential website ConservativeHome.

‘People make political decisions based primarily on emotion rather than reason,’ he wrote. Giving advice to his Conservative allies, Frayne argued there was a need for election campaigns to develop greater expertise in the science of persuasion and influence. Campaigns needed to take in neuroscience and psychology. Party strategists, Frayne argued, should ‘investigate the process by which people make political decisions, and how they can intervene in that process to make them vote for a particular party’.

Frayne’s advice to Britain’s politicians is to take a much more self-consciously emotional approach to winning popular support. To achieve this, Frayne was moved to predict that they will soon start working with experts on how the mind works. ‘Messages that touch people on an emotional level,’ wrote Frayne, ‘cause a physical reaction in the brain that makes such messages more likely to be stored in our long-term memory, and therefore more likely to affect our political outlook.’

Frayne has advised business to follow suit. In a 2013 book, he urges companies to learn from political-campaign techniques and apply them to corporate PR to ‘become experts in public persuasion’. Business needs to start leading the public conversation again, he says. They should ditch the ‘backroom lobbyists’ and replace them with campaigners who will generate public conversations on the issues that matter to business. This ‘permanent’, emotionally driven PR assault on the public is the way to secure influence today, he says.

Learning from America

Frayne’s thinking has been influenced by US politics, and he has sought to encourage more US-style political campaigning into the UK. His previous blog, CampaignWarRoom, for example, offered daily insight on campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic.

He also gained experience helping out on Mitt Romney’s failed presidential campaign in 2012. He also spent time working at 'one of New York City’s best regarded communications firms' in c2013-14.

Keeping a low profile

Frayne has been described as a strategic thinker of immense insight. He does, however, prefer to keep a low profile. He has been dubbed ‘London’s best kept secret’.[8][9]

Government roles

In early 2011, education secretary Michael Gove hired Frayne from Portland PR, as his director of communications in an effort to ‘beef up’ his team with some campaigning experience. Frayne claims to have 'pioneered a public-facing, campaign approach within Government' as Director of Communications for the Department for Education.[10]

Overly-influential government adviser

In 2013 an unnamed member of the Department for Education complained about how Frayne and another of Gove's special advisers (spads) Dominic Cummings had run the department during their tenure. The Independent newspaper reported that a private settlement of £25,000 was reached to prevent alleged allegations of bullying and intimidation reaching a tribunal. [11]

Think tank roles

  • James began his career working for Business for Sterling, the successful campaign against British membership of the European single currency
  • He also managed the No campaign against the proposed North East Regional Assembly in the 2004 referendum, which won an upset landslide against the government-backed Yes Campaign.
  • As of November 2014, Frayne is director of policy and strategy at Policy Exchange, one of the UK's most high-profile neoconservative think tanks. [12]

Commercial lobbying roles

Frayne has worked for a number of commercial lobbying firms in London:

  • He worked for big-name agency Portland PR as head of its campaigns unit in the three years running up to the 2010 general election, although it is not known what activity he was involved in. Frayne revealed in 2009 that some of Portland's clients’ reputations were taking a ‘near-daily hammering’ in the press. His reaction was not to reflect on why, but to fight back. ‘There are still too [many] occasions where third party organisations feel completely free to go after businesses and get coverage for themselves because they know they can’t get hurt,’ he said. Lobbyists needed to be more aggressive and counter-attack, he said.

Publications

  • Meet The People: Why businesses must engage with public opinion to manage and enhance their reputations, James Frayne (2013)
  • Frayne's old blog, 'Campaign war room', Blog of the Year in 2010. [13]

Resources

References

  1. Why Another Public Opinion Agency?, Public First website, accessed November 2016
  2. Why Another Public Opinion Agency?, Public First website, accessed November 2016
  3. James Frayne, ‘How public affairs agencies need to up their game’, PR Week, 19 June 2009.
  4. Anna Minton, Scaring the living daylights, published by Spinwatch, March 2013
  5. Rachel Wolf, Linkedin profile, accessed November 2016
  6. John Dickens, Vote Leave campaigner and Tory donor behind Parents and Teachers for Excellence campaign, Schools Week, 22 Sept 2016
  7. [Robert Watts, who-saw-off-Prescott.html Low-tax campaigner who saw off Prescott. “If you don’t trust politicians, why trust them with your money?” James Frayne talks morals to Robert Watts, Sunday Telegraph, 15 January 2006
  8. Patrick Wintour, co.uk/politics/blog/2011/feb/25/michael-gove-james-frayne-education Michael Gove opts for a better Frayne of mind in retelling message, Guardian, 25 February 2011
  9. David Singleton brandrepublic.com/news/1056837 Department for Education hires James Frayne as comms chief, Brand Republic, 24 February 2011
  10. Who we are, Public First website, accessed November 2016
  11. ‘Dump f***ing everyone’: the inside story of how Michael Gove’s vicious attack dogs are terrorising the DfE [1], accessed Sept 2014
  12. Rod Muir PX post for Gove’s comms man PublicAffairs News, 11 November 2014, accessed 5 December 2014
  13. James Frayne author profile, Harriman House, accessed 17 February 2014