Absolutely off the record
I feel rather naughty writing to you. A taboo is being broken. Everyone knows that there is an “us” and “them” and you are definitely not one of “us.” By which I mean you are not in public relations, the “us” to which I belong. There is no precedent for debating with a journalist about the nature of the media/PR relationship. To analyse the nature of this curious, involved, fraught relationship is to ask for trouble. And trouble is certainly something which PR as an industry has in abundance. “At some point during the last ten years,” said the Guardian last November, “PRs formed a clandestine, Mason-like alliance with accountants and took over the world. A few expense account lunches and it was done, though it’s not until you get inside the media that you realise just how much of what you read and see on television has bubbled up like rancid spring water from press offices.” Around the same time, Michael Bywater admitted in the Independent on Sunday: “Hell’s teeth, this is difficult… I was once in public relations. Not exactly in public relations, you understand. I didn’t sit by the telephone waiting for journalists to ring me up so that I could tell them lies.”
I feel I have much to be proud of, yet much to defend. I have been in PR for over ten years, during which time I have not only never lied, but I have endured the kind of bashing handed out to ethnic minorities not yet gathered under the protective umbrella of political correctness. PR is seen as anything from an irrelevance to an irritant, or in extremis, a polluter of truth. Who makes these allegations? Journalists in the media. Everyone in PR knows the value of cultivating friendly contacts. But the PR industry itself has few friends in the media.
When the Dunblane horror struck, it was news. A single atrocious act made the headlines for days. The media was praised by the watchdogs for its restraint and sensitive handling of the issue. This is unusual in itself. What is more unusual is that such a “pure” news item dominates the media. In my experience, something over 80 per cent of the media is, one way or another, PR-led. The sheer glut of magazines, magazine programmes, and spare pages/airtime demanding to be filled means that the media is deeply dependent on PR. No serious journalist can deny this. Gone are the days of the investigative reporter in a raincoat. Media ownership, short term contracts, staff turnover (I know of one arts journalist on a broadsheet paper transferred, overnight, into a political features editor) all mean that journalists need PR people. But such dependency spawns resentment. Hence the PR bashing.
The role of publicising something, or media relations, is just one aspect of PR, which encompasses a range of management functions whose roots lie in behavioural science rather than the hucksterism of PT Barnum. As Edward Bernays, the founding father of modern public relations, said: “Public relations is an art applied to science-social science-in which the public interest rather than financial motivation is the primary consideration.” Idealism maybe. But isn’t it the same idealism of many journalists-to seek the truth without financial motivation? Try telling that to a ratings-obsessed producer, or anyone at most of the big newspaper groups these days.
PR does not find support or even understanding in the media; rather it finds its extremities (Max Clifford etc) wheeled out, and its practices caricatured. PR is the new scapegoat, a reviled minority. Will you take up the campaign to defend PR? If not, why not?
26th March 1996
Don’t be so dignified. Neither of us works for a respectable profession. My own trade was perfectly summed up by Dr Johnson as “scribbling on the backs of advertisements,” and it would be a sad day if we started to take ourselves seriously. The dreary wastes of fact-checked, lifeless prose in American papers are a warning to us all of what can happen to a country which has too many professors of journalism and too few stained and bulging old hacks.
So please don’t take it personally when I sum up my message to you and your fellow PRs in yellow press language. Get back to where you once belonged. I am only too happy to see PRs promoting a new fragrance or even an over-rated novel. If Bienvenida whatsername or this month’s rock icon wants to hire someone of your persuasion, I will not protest. We all accept the role of charm and image in selling a product, and we understand that you, just like us, have a living to make. I’ll even accept your justified accusations that some of us have grown too dependent on PRs to spoonfeed us when we are too lazy to make our own investigations.
What I cannot stomach is the way in which image makers, thought policemen and spin doctors have all but taken over the battle for political power. Not a speech is made, not a policy launched, not a conference vote taken, without the mood and colour experts, the capsule wardrobe attendants, the mass psychologists and the rest of them planning the way it will look-especially on television. To be a writing journalist at one of these events is to be an outsider, a nuisance and a potential disruption. One of the most striking changes at party conferences now is the way the press table has been shifted away from the old place of honour beneath the platform, and shoved to one side. We, like our stories, might get in the way of the official version.
Just in case we do get out of hand, we are patrolled. At the last Labour conference I was in the middle of writing about a Blair speech when I experienced a strange sensation between my shoulderblades: Alastair Campbell, Blair’s PR man, was reading my copy as I was writing it. As I turned to face him, he was about to offer his comments. Instead, I offered him some abrupt advice. What frightened me about this incident was that Alastair clearly thought that it was quite normal to behave like this, and was shocked by my reaction. In fact, it took him several seconds to realise that I was in earnest. Some months later, after the first debate on the Scott report, I was tapping at my laptop in the press gallery library when I was approached by Charles Lewington from Tory central office, clearly anxious to offer me wisdom. I waved him away, again astonished that he should have thought I would want his advice. I criticised our American cousins earlier, but I think that anyone reared in the land of Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment would have reacted with equally righteous anger and astonishment.
There must be many reporters now actively covering politics who simply do not know that it was not always like that. I know I sound a bit like WF Deedes when I say this, but I remember when it was different. You could decide what a speech meant without being told. Heavens, things sometimes happened away from the cameras. People got carried away in unscripted speeches and said what they really meant. You could get close up to the candidates and question them without minders interrupting. I very much fear that at the next election Tony Blair will move about in a private bubble, safely guarded from hard or consistent interrogation. This process had already begun in 1992, when I caused a minor sensation by penetrating Neil Kinnock’s screen of aides and minders to ask him a question (I had been refused the opportunity at the official press conference). Quite a few of my colleagues had been so lulled by the PR handling of the campaign that they had unwittingly fallen in with the spin doctors’ plans. If I had not spent the previous two years in daily combat with Soviet bureaucracy, I might have done the same. Things have got a lot worse since then.
Now, if you people had stuck to the Paris collections and the oil companies, instead of branching out into politics, we might still have real, live election campaigns with proper debates, genuine hecklers and a chance for the people to see their would-be leaders not as they would like to be seen, but as they are. You say that you have never told a lie in your work. Do you really think that your trade’s involvement in politics serves the truth?
30th March 1996
You have just ignored the bulk of my industry, and its history, preferring a personality-based attack on one specialism-political PR. In time-honoured PR tradition, let me also correct some factual errors. Far from “branching out into politics,” PR is as old as politics-whether it was “Vote for Cicero. He is a good man” signs found by archaeologists, or the 120,000 copies of Tom Paine’s Common Sense, printed and sold in three months to heat up lukewarm revolutionaries in the 18th century.
This is not to argue that all political PR is good for you, or that it is to be taken too seriously: take the efforts to humanise President Calvin Coolidge, which included breakfasts at the White House with Al Jolson and the Dolly Sisters. In contemporary American politics the love affair/mock rivalry between James Carvill, Bill Clinton’s strategist, and Mary Matalin, George Bush’s manager, during the last presidential election set the agenda for much of the image making of the campaign, and shows how the political process can be turned into soap opera. Is PR alone to blame? To leave journalism out of the equation, when judging the failure of our political culture, seems perverse.
Also perverse, or naïve, is your attitude to technology. When the “squidgy tapes” were published in Australia, half of my colleagues received the transcripts by fax from friends down-under, despite the UK ban. Television advertising for products ranging from newspapers to cars now incorporate the internet into their messages. Interactivity is here, even for those of us who secretly believe that a novel written in longhand must be better than one tapped out down a modem.
Set within this context, your complaint that in the glorious old days “things sometimes happened away from the cameras” sounds truly archaic. PR is in part about responding to circumstances, both culturally and technically. Nicholas Jones, the BBC correspondent, says that newspapers have been at a disadvantage ever since cameras were allowed into the House of Commons in 1989: “Their detailed reporting became redundant because readers with an avid interest in parliamentary news had usually either seen or heard the key passages the day before-the day on which they were uttered.” (Incidentally, his book, Soundbites and Spin Doctors: How Politicians Manipulate the Media and Vice Versa, recognises the mutually dependent roles of PR and journalism.)
Print journalism is under the gun in the technological race. Set against such threats, your protests about PR intervention-confined chiefly to being overlooked in the press gallery as you type-seems a little feeble. Both PRs and journalists, particularly in politics, make use of “off the record,” in which much more can be said than in public conversation. As a recent editorial in PR Week commented: “The more cautious members of the PR fraternity refuse to go off the record at all, and measure every response as if expecting to be quoted on it. Restricting the flow of information to official soundbites or refusing to comment at all may force the journalist to go to other, perhaps less sympathetic or well informed sources for their information. Or they may just speculate.” Political communicators-“spin doctors” or not -would be fools to overlook this.
Above all, you almost seem to be saying that to be in PR and attempt to intervene in reporting in certain circumstances is, well, impudence: PRs should be seen and not heard, perhaps? You are overlooking the fact that the roots of PR lie in advocacy, and that the growth area in the industry is in crisis management-in situations which arise either because senior management have failed to look at the PR implications of a strategy until it is too late (Shell and Brent Spar), or because the media have seized upon an issue and run with it in a way which goes beyond the control of an existing strategy (British beef industry).
While you pursue your personal bàªtes noires, you fail to engage in the discussion about what communication is today-how and whether “truth” can still exist with the massive filter of the mass media. Until we agree that all information is subjective, regardless of who writes, publishes or broadcasts it, then to look for a culprit and settle on PR is a dereliction of duty. Of course there are some goons in my industry, just as there are some in yours. There are people who personify crass and interfering PR just as there are those who typify the hack who has written the story before asking a single question about the subject. Most people in both professions are, however, professional. Let’s not forget, either, how intertwined PR and journalism are. Taking your example of politics, it’s no accident that both Alistair Campbell and Charles Lewington were political editors before they crossed the floor of political communications. If you look at popular culture, the Absolutely Fabulous visions of Edina and Patsy swigging, snorting and tantrumming their way around the worlds of PR and journalism, could be conveying that we are, at least, partners in crime. But no. Journalism still refuses to see PR as a relative. Why?
3rd April 1996
You don’t see the gravity of what is going on, and you fail to answer my most important question. Either you misunderstand my point about the political image makers trying to influence copy as it is written, or you are deliberately trivialising it. It is my turn for a quotation, from John Sopel’s biography of Tony Blair, about Peter Mandelson:
“He would patrol the corridors of the press gallery poking his head round doors, finding out how lobby journalists were treating a particular story. Often reporters would be sitting at their terminals filing a report only to find Mandelson peering over their shoulder, with suggestions on how the story might be improved or exploding with indignation if it did Labour down… Mandelson and the press team that he assembled were forever interfering, bullying and trying to shape the political coverage of either the newspaper or the broadcaster. Often Mandelson would in no uncertain terms be told where to go. But more remarkable was the number of occasions on which his view or ‘spin’ on a story prevailed. Part of it was because younger members of the lobby were slightly scared of him.”
They were scared, says John Sopel, because Mandelson had cultivated their bosses and knew how to make trouble for them. This passage is not known widely enough. It filled me with wrath when I first read it, and it still does. We are used to the client relationship between journalist and PR in some fields, and we take it for granted. Whose destiny is influenced by most showbiz, literary or fashion journalism?
Your assertion that “all information is subjective” (do you really believe this?) looks to me like a licence for dishonesty in pursuit of, well, business. PR’s arrival in British politics (which until recently was nothing like American politics) only shows up its faults more clearly. Selling socialism with a painted face may seem like just another contract to you, but to me it is a cynical fraud, with sinister undertones.
I know you are hung up on particular personalities in the Labour party, but you should not present yourself as some crusader for “truth,” thwarted by sinister PR. The political identity of each national paper is known. Your own is no exception. It is an unwritten rule of media relations that journalists need a story, an angle, a hook. I have never been ticked off for suggesting an idea to a journalist, but I have been chided-rightly-if I have picked up the phone without either my facts, or a clear sense of what would benefit both my client and the media.
The ratio of journalists to PRs in Britain is approximately four to one. You are still the majority. Media relations in PR would not work without journalists, and you would not be able to print a single word if advertising did not pay for it. Stop being holier than thou.
A new book, Breaking the News: How The Media Undermines American Democracy, by James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly, tackles some of the questions you refuse to address: “Deep forces in America’s political, social, and economic structures account for most of the frustration of today’s politics, but the media’s attitudes have played a surprisingly important and destructive role.” No such British look at the media has yet been undertaken.
7th April 1996
I would have thought that your elevated view of your own trade would have prevented you from using this sort of argument. I couldn’t care less about personalities in the Labour party, though I do mind a great deal about the methods some individuals have chosen to use. But let that pass, because the argument is bigger than that. Journalism’s superiority to PR, which seems to exercise you so much, does not result from the special virtues of the people involved, nor from high ideals. It exists despite the fact that journalists are usually no better than they ought to be. It is imposed on us by the fact that-in the long run-the truth is great and will prevail. If we make mistakes, or try to suppress or distort reality, we will be found out by our readers, and punished in one of the last remaining competitive markets in the world. It seems to me that the very opposite rule can sometimes apply in PR, where economy with the truth can often lead to commercial success and new clients. If you are selling a genuine commercial product, which buyers can return or refuse to buy again, this does not much matter. If you are helping a political party into power for up to five years, during which time it will have the means to affect the lives of those who didn’t vote for it as well as those who did, then it matters a great deal.