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Let us praise

7 May

Let’s stop to consider a group of people who are widely derided – and assumed to be liars.

Yet they’re natural communicators who take every opportunity to seek public engagement. They live with a high degree of job insecurity, yet they are strategic thinkers as well as doers, managers and activists. They believe in the power of ideas to effect positive change.

They work long hours (the job never stops), having had to put in long stints of voluntary work to build their CVs.

Public relations practitioners will recognise the description – but I’m thinking of politicians.

Most impressive of all, politics is not all about elections. The winners today (and even some of the losers) will have to start work tomorrow to form a government. Those in government will have to work hard to meet the goals of a balanced economy and a fairer society.

They will suffer from external events, from the news agenda, from public derision – and from the claim that they can’t keep their promises.

Yet they only retain their jobs with public approval. Many will be looking for work tomorrow – but you could write the damning article now about the revolving door between politics, business and public affairs.

Who’d be a politician?

It’s deceptively simple. So how do you teach PR?

1 Apr

Comms and caffeineAt a junior level you need to make stuff happen. At a senior level, you need to add value to the organisation. Sounds easy?

When you break down the steps involved in making stuff happen, you realise there’s more to PR than just common sense (though that helps).

By way of illustration, a student blogger was invited to speak on local radio to share her thoughts on the role of social media in the election. I make that three steps and at least three years of preparation behind this activity.

  1. Interest and expertise. Post one or more articles about politics and social media (having studied or taken an interest in politics, journalism and public relations).
  2. Make your posts discoverable. You may assume that Google is all-knowing, but even the great search engine needs help in filtering (we all struggle with ‘filter failure’ in the social media age). Don’t miss out on simple tricks like completing your ‘About’ page and sharing your contact details and social media profiles.
  3. Make yourself available. You have to fit in with broadcast schedules, and commit to their timings and agenda.

There’s a fourth step: have something interesting to say, but you should already have passed that test at step one.

So, this is a good achievement for a student, whose reward is the experience (and perhaps being written about by those like me who don’t even teach her). But how does a local radio interview add value to an organisation (the challenge for the senior practitioner)?

This is where education can make a difference and help PR graduates overtake those with well-developed craft skills who may never master PR as a managerial function.

A radio interview, like a blog post or newspaper article or email or phone call, is merely a PR output. You need to see the bigger picture if you’re to explain how outputs contribute to outcomes.

To understand this, you need to articulate the purpose of your PR activity.

Is your PR activity focused on raising awareness of a cause, a person, a product or an organisation? Are you seeking to change people’s attitudes to these, or to change their behaviour (eg getting people to vote?).

Once you’ve decided what your activity is designed to achieve, you can build in suitable measures (an essential requirement of a managerial approach) and deploy appropriate resources. You’ll also realise that output measures like press clippings or social media shares and likes (though easy) are laughably inadequate.

It’s deceptively simple. And that’s the challenge faced by educators. We don’t want to overcomplicate for its own sake, but what seems straightforward to an experienced practitioner will seem very challenging to a student.

Remember your first driving lesson? Mirror-signal-manouevre may be simple, but coordinating the steering and the gear changes while performing this ritual seemed very challenging at first. It took practice.

Referendum: three awkward truths

3 May

Here are three things that have contributed to the awkwardness surrounding the referendum campaign.

  1. Governments don't like referendums (the last and only other UK-wide referendum was in 1975) in case we cast a vote about them rather than on the issue. But this government is unusual since it's a coalition and the Conservatives and Lib Dems are split on this question. Heads or tails?
  2. Many supporters of Yes are only lukewarm about the alternative voting system (AV) because though it may be a bit fairer, but it's still not proportional. Most, though, would not go along with Lord Owen who advocates a No vote because he's holding out for proportional representation.
  3. Those campaigning for No don't want the public to realise that they're almost all Conservatives, hence their enthusiasm to put forward former Labour cabinet ministers. But where has the money for the campaign come from?

My verdict? I think the No campaign has been the more effective and may have succeeded. They've learnt some lessons from US politics and have played to people's fears. Negative campaigning appears to work.

Me? I'm voting Yes. Remember how you felt over the MPs' expenses scandal? Most of the worst excesses came from MPs with 'safe' seats. If you support tribal, binary Labour-Conservative politics, then the status quo has suited you well. But for many of us (and for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) politics is much more than a binary choice. So get used to ranking candidates by preference (or simply voting 1 instead of an X if you must).

What of the cost issue (the main thrust of the negative No campaign? By this argument, we'd dispense with all elections whatever the system because they're also expensive. So it's Yes to democracy. Make sure you vote on Thursday.

Key themes for 2011

8 Jan

Looking back on 2010 allows us to predict some of the main talking points for the year ahead.


I have previously argued that the Stockholm Accords were a milestone event. This document qualitatively articulates the value that public relations provides to organisations at a macro level.

But can we quantify this value? The hyperactive and always challenging David Phillips will attempt this at a conference this year, from his perspective that the PR business has been failing to reach its full potential for years.

Though these questions may sound academic, this will be a year in which practitioners in all sectors will need to prove their value to their clients and employers. So they would be well advised to take note of these discussions.

Within higher education, the new fees regime from 2012 will challenge universities to demonstrate the value of their degree courses. My humble effort is a project to document how graduates have benefited from their PR degrees over the past two decades.


Remember Gordon Brown forgetting his mic during the election campaign? The problem was the disconnect revealed between the public and private person (a problem some of his senior colleagues had been concerned about for years).

Now consider the implications of WikiLeaks (and the parliamentary expenses scandal). These challenge the assumption of private, and make a presumption in favour of information being public. We've not heard the last of the tussle between public and private, national security and civil liberties. (There's also a civil liberties argument in favour of less being known about us, not more).

Public relations, concerned as it is with matters in the public sphere, has a role in defining what should be known in the public interest, and what should be concealed for private reasons. Expect public relations teams to be auditing information flows and anticipating what would happen if and when the private becomes public. The intention will be to inoculate against further Gordon Brown moments.

How – and why – I’m voting

2 May

Two Cheers The answer to 'why vote' is the easy one. Unless you were a property-owning man, the right to vote was a hard-fought achievement (all adult women in the UK only finally gaining this right in 1928). I'm with EM Forster. Democracy is not a perfect system, but it's better than the alternatives:

"So two cheers for democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism."

It's important to vote – for any of the above (on the 'use it or lose it' principle). If you want to vote for 'none of the above', then it's preferable to turn up and 'spoil' your ballot paper than not to turn up at all. 

Best of all, though, democracy is not a one-way street. If you think the existing lot are no good and you could do better than all of them – then for a £500 deposit and a few signatures you can stand for election next time round.

The clue to how I'm voting is embedded above. Like Forster, I'm a (small l) liberal.

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Politics: personality or policy?

6 Mar

Parliament at night We've published an Election Special at Behind the Spin – with thanks to Darren Lilleker of Bournemouth University who commissioned and vetted the articles.

In overview, the articles belong in one of two camps. Those written by professionals are concerned with the process of elections: campaigning tactics and issues of electoral reform. Those written by students are primarily interested in the personalities of political leaders.

It's hard for someone of my generation (my first election as a voter brought Margaret Thatcher to power) to view politics from the perspective of the post-Cold War generation. Left-right no longer has any meaning, and there are few clear ideological lines between the main parties. What's a young voter to do? Turn off politics and turn on The X Factor.

If there's no longer meaning in left-right, here are some issues that should cause young voters to be concerned or angry:

  • The previous generation have borrowed and spent to such an extent that they will most probably be poorer than their parents. (This could even be the first generation in seven centuries to be poorer, less healthy and to die younger than their parents). Money matters. The coming election will be about finances more than anything else.
  • Previous generations have been taking natural resources from the planet with no thought for the future. There will be a price to pay. The environment is a major issue that sits outside conventional left-right party politics.

I'm still accepting articles for publication on politics, political communication or the other issues we cover. Please keep sending them to

A brief history of briefing

1 Mar

It's the public relations story of the past week, the rather sinister power of PR to damage and undermine through the process known as briefing. Even experienced hands are surprised by the viciousness as we saw from an interview with the Chancellor Alistair Darling and from the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley. As for less experienced people, Christine Pratt of the National Bullying Helpline must be regretting her tangle with the 'forces of hell'. She's enlisted the help of Max Clifford so she knows she's in a fight.

In an ideal world of transparency, there would be no unattributable briefings – and no 'off the record' comments. But we don't live in that perfect world. Briefings – often resulting in coy comments such as 'sources close to the Prime Minister confirmed' – are a form of institutionalised insider gossip that suits the media and PR people close to power.

In a world where everything is on the record, attributable and recorded, people would speak much less freely. The media would lose its privileged access to insight and information. PR people would become pointless intermediaries and the public would be less well informed. Is a lack of truth-telling preferable to truthfulness constrained by, say, anonymity? Few would argue that it is.

What principles can we apply to guide us through these murky waters? Remember that one guiding principle – to tell the truth – often conflicts with another principle – to respect client confidentiality.

  • Assume that everything can be made public. In a world of small, ubiquitous cameras and recording devices, we shouldn't assume that our comments will stay private. A private email can easily become very public.
  • Do you have good grounds for keeping something private? The most obvious example is national security (the 'lives are at risk' argument). But there are others: commercial negotiations could be scuppered if made public, so jobs could be at risk. There are also competitive reasons not to disclose future product developments. It may even be illegal to use privileged information as you could be convicted of insider dealing.
  • Non-attributable: do you have a good reason for keeping your name out of the story beyond saving your job and reputation? The answer is when you believe it's in the public interest for information to be made known, but the information would be compromised if its source were made public.
  • What is 'off-the-record'? The simple answer is that nothing is off the record, so don't use it. But there are occasions when there are conflicting principles. We saw this with the MMR vaccine when former Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to say whether his youngest child had received the vaccine so as not to breach the child's right to privacy. Yet this risked undermining the government's case that the vaccine was safe, so the decision was taken to brief senior journalists on an 'off the record' basis. A much better phrase is 'background briefing': is it important to explain the wider context that requires potential breaches of confidentiality or national security? Is the briefing the lesser of two evils?

Prediction: 2010 will be the year of the blog

22 Dec

IainDale'sDiary You might think I'm five years behind the times, but the impact of technology is not linear, nor is it always predictable.

The Economist tells how commentators predicted in the 1840s that the telegraph would challenge newspapers. Instead, faster transmittal of news led to the era of the great newspapers.

Today, newspapers face bankruptcy. As The Economist article concludes:

The internet may kill newspapers; but it is not clear if that matters. For society, what matters is that people should have access to news, not that it should be delivered through any particular medium.

So we don't have a crisis of news; we have a crisis of news distribution and the need for a viable business model.

Here's my thinking about blogs. The first phase, championed by Blogger, Typepad and others enabled easy personal publishing. Yet growth in and buzz around personal blogs slowed as first social networks (like Facebook) and then microblogging (Twitter) satisfied most people's needs for expression and interaction.

Blogging hasn't gone away, but it has become less visible as the early adopters have been exploring new new tools. Yet quietly, this personal publishing platform has been developing into professional publishing. Open-source WordPress has been leading the way in this, as personal blogs give way to group blogs and sophisticated content management systems.

This development should not be surprising as it has a precedent. Newspapers emerged from the explosion of pamphlets enabled by the printing press (a disruptive technology in its day). At first, these pamphlets were personal and amateurish; in time, they became more professional and evolved into the newspapers whose names we're still familiar with.

So, in predicting that 2010 will be the year of the blog, it's not personal, amateur blogs that I have in mind. It's well-researched, professional blogs in specialist niches such as politics and business. The UK general election campaign will provide a local boost to the political blogs, and the challenge of the recession will boost the adoption of low-cost approaches to marketing and communications.

There's another factor in this trend. For many individuals, social networks and Twitter are alternatives to blogging. For the more professional bloggers, these networks provide valuable 'push' channels for attracting readers and encouraging the creation of communities of interest.

We've long been familiar with the role of the public relations practitioner as content creator. There's work here for those who are far-sighted enough to establish strategies and rationales for blogging engagement along with robust systems for writing, editing and moderation, while avoiding the obvious pitfalls of ghost-writing and the constant conflict between transparency and disclosure.

Then there's the emergence of a new role: the public relations practitioner as community engagement manager (with a blog one possible hub for the community).

PR and the media (latest from the US)

13 Jul

Here are three observations on contemporary public relations from a media perspective (most positive first):

  1. The Power and the Story: Michael Wolff's analysis in Vanity Fair of President Obama's powerful media operation. (Note the difference in style between a magazine and a blog: there's a 76-word sentence containing no fewer than nine commas here. But don't let that put you off reading this elegant article.)
  2. Spinning the Web: PR in Silicon Valley: New York Times business section (and note Richard Edelman's scathing reaction to this exercise in self-promotion).
  3. PR Girls Who Don't Know Where Darfur Is Bask in Bruno Press Blitz: New York Times fashion section (via PROpenMic). Nuff said, probably, though there's already a tribute blog – Hot Twin PR

What are we to make of this? In brief, it shows the problem of simplifying an activity that spans political and technology communications and also includes celebrity publicity. But I suspect it also shows something of an east coast, west coast divide in the US. Here in the UK, Max Clifford, Matthew Freud, Alan Parker and Roland Rudd all work in London (see post below) – a political, financial and media hub.

Dirty tricks and special advisers

14 Apr

A political PR story has people talking. I'll limit myself to four observations:

  1. The blogging dimension has been overstated. Political PR has often been conducted through leaks (known as non-attributable briefings), so there's nothing fundamentally new in the use of blogs to disseminate (mis)information. What's new in that blogging appears to favour opposition voices in a more pronounced way than happens with the traditional media, hence the desperate tactics from government advisers that have been exposed by this story.
  2. It's a truism that Conservative politicians are vulnerable to sex scandals while Labour politicians are vulnerable over money. In a recession, the public seems more shocked by stories of bath plugs on expenses than allegations of sexual misconduct.
  3. There are rules governing the party political activities of civil servants. Why not enforce the existing rules before rushing to create new ones?
  4. There are such strong practical grounds for rejecting dirty tricks campaigns that we don't even need to start discussing principles. 'Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.' There is a danger that no normal people will choose to enter political life, knowing the scrutiny it will bring on their families and on their past lives. David Cameron was right to refuse to give a direct answer to the question about drugs; public figures deserve some privacy. Besides, what's the point of principles if we don't stand by them? Sure, it's wrong to lie… Except when lying, even black propaganda, is the lesser of two evils – as was surely the case with the wartime Special Operations Executive. So let's stick to the practical point: dirty tricks campaigns are wrong because they're so often ineffectice and counter-productive. 

Surprisingly, the business world appears in this regard to be a more genteel place than politics. I suspect this is because in business there's very rarely a simple binary choice as there so often is in democratic politics. And the principle of denying your competitors free publicity means that direct attacks tend not to be used.

In reality, politicians have much in common with each other and often behave with remarkable restraint and dignity. For me, the highlight of the US presidential election did not directly involve the successful candidate. In a campaign walkabout, John McCain was approached by a woman who suggested that Barack Obama did not deserve support because he was an Arab. 'No ma'am, he is a decent family man and citizen.' The right thing to do (in terms of winning) might have involved playing the race card; McCain did the right thing for democratic politics.