Page last updated at 12:12 GMT, Thursday, 21 May 2009 13:12 UK

Star key to Ab Fab Gurkha victory

Joanna Lumley
PR experts say Lumley's campaign was 'ruthlessly planned'

In a ruling that could affect more than 36,000 veterans, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has announced that Gurkhas who left the British Army with at least four year's service before 1997 will be granted UK residency.

The campaign to secure settlement rights for Gurkhas undoubtedly owes much of its success to the fact it had a household name in Joanna Lumley to champion its cause.

However, according to public relations experts, it was thanks to a unique set of circumstances that it won such a remarkable victory.

Prof Anne Gregory, director of the Centre for Public Relations Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University, said celebrity "ambassadors" have been used to good effect by charities such as Unicef.

But she said Lumley's close ties to the Gurkhas - her father fought alongside the Nepalese warriors during World War II - were crucial.

"She was the perfect figurehead," said Prof Gregory.

"She has that real personal connection. She's not doing it for the money or self-promotion and people feel she has the right to speak on the Gurkhas' behalf."

Public perceptions of the soldiers as "noble, brave, altruistic and loyal to the Queen without necessity" made the Gurkha Justice Campaign stand out from other causes, said the professor.

When you focus people's minds, common sense will prevail and that's the great thing Joanna Lumley has done
Robert Phillips, Edelman PR

"People feel we should be generous to them in return for their loyalty," she said.

Even so, without Lumley's backing, Prof Gregory said the campaign may have waited much longer to achieve its goals, as leaders struggled to make their views heard.

"Joanna Lumley is a beautiful woman, easily recognised and is articulate so was able to challenge people in authority," she said.

Once the Liberal Democrats - whose motion calling on the government to grant all Gurkhas equal residence rights was backed by the Tories and Labour rebels - had taken on the cause, victory was in sight.

Then, when four veterans received letters to say their residency applications had been refused, Lumley turned up the heat through a high-profile public confrontation with Immigration Minister Phil Woolas.

At the time, BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson said she appeared to be "leading the government in a merry dance".

Robert Phillips is chief executive of one of the world's leading PR agencies, Edelman, and was behind the iconic "Hello Boys" Wonderbra advert.

'Easy soundbite'

He told the BBC that Lumley's efforts had created "the perfect storm in a positive way".

Exploiting the "photo collateral" of a celebrity alongside ageing war-hardened veterans - many of them injured - she had also benefited from the anti-Gordon Brown "feeding frenzy" in the press.

He said the Gurkhas' underlying moral case had a "real resonance" with the public.

"It's an easy soundbite to say 'if they are prepared to die for a country, why can't they live here"," said Mr Phillips.

However, he said the campaign's effectiveness was no accident and that behind-the-scenes work by Kent-based Liberal Democrat Peter Carroll had been crucial.

"There was pretty ruthless planning that went on to ensure that Joanna Lumley chose her moment well," said Mr Phillips.

By the time of the Woolas clash, the momentum was behind Lumley, and public outrage at the government was aggravated by the minister's "slightly stumbling" response, he said.

Lack of trust

However, despite Lumley's success, Mr Phillips sounded a note of caution against those who have suggested it should be the springboard for her to launch a career in politics.

"I'm not sure whether single-issue campaigners necessarily transfer into national politicians," he said.

Lumley has said she has no interest in entering politics but Mr Phillips said the mere suggestion that she - along with fellow TV personality Esther Rantzen - should stand for election showed how far trust in politicians had diminished in the wake of the expenses scandal.

However, he said the government's Gurkha U-turn and the overhaul of the MPs' expenses system would represent a victory for citizens in the long-term.

"Joanna Lumley has shown that sometimes our parliamentary process just become too detached.

"But when you focus people's minds, common sense will prevail and that's the great thing Joanna Lumley has done."

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