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Campaign of the century

14 Jul

This is a summary of a paper I presented at the International History of Public Relations Conference at Bournemouth on 8 July 2015.

Presenting the paper at Bournemouth. Photo: Heather Yaxley

Presenting the paper at Bournemouth. Photo: Heather Yaxley

Is the anti-smoking campaign the public relations campaign of the twentieth century?

It scores on awareness of the link between smoking and disease; it has achieved widespread attitude change around the issue of passive smoking; and it has reduced smoking from a majority to a minority habit.

Some might argue that the campaign has not succeeded because almost one in five of adults (19%) still smoke. But those behind the campaign had a different goal – to make smoking abnormal in society.

This was not initially a government campaign. It was initiated by a professional group of doctors – the Royal College of Physicians – whose only previous public campaign had been to lobby for an increase in the price of gin in 1725.

Nor was it obvious that doctors should take a stance on smoking. Some still smoked in the 1950s, and many felt that it was not their role to campaign against cigarettes as they were not a disease (though smoking could lead to disease).

Change came with the election of Robert Platt to the presidency of the Royal College of Physicians in 1957. His greatest achievement as president was the report on Smoking and Health published in 1962. The catalyst for this report was a chest physician, Charles Fletcher, who had presented two BBC television programmes about health in the late 1950s and was a natural communicator.

Fletcher edited the report to make it comprehensible to the public and members of parliament (previous reports from the college had been written for medical practitioners only).

Smoking and Health coverThis report was launched on 7 March 1962 – Ash Wednesday – when the college held its first ever press conference.

The morning press conference was well attended and the press release from this event provides an early and compelling example of risk communication. How to present the mortality risks from smoking to a roomful of journalists? Platt is reported as saying:

‘Those who smoke 25 or 30 cigarettes a day have about thirty times the chance of dying of [lung cancer] than a non-smoker does. Of course you might say it is still only the minority, about one in eight of heavy smokers, who died of the disease, and this is true. But supposing you were offered a flight on an airline and you were told that usually only about one in eight of their airlines crashed, you might think again.’

The report received extensive and largely positive press coverage – and interviews were given to the BBC and ITV (the only two television channels in the UK at that time).

Journalists accepted the evidence, though some questioned what action government should take.

The Daily Mail editorial from 8 March 1962 illustrates this ambivalence:

Risk in a cigarette

Men and women must decide for themselves whether to continue smoking or not. For the Government to try to do it for them would be an interference with individual liberty.

That is our first reaction the latest report on the relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. It comes from the Royal College of Physicians, whose warnings should be taken to heart.

After years of argument there is no longer any doubt about the correlation between the smoke and the disease. The evidence is too overwhelming to be explained away.

We would strongly oppose the suggestion that the price of cigarettes should be made almost prohibitive. This is the wrong approach.

Smoking is a virtual necessity for millions of people and there would be widespread resentment (or pay demands) if a packet of 20 were put up to, say, 10s.’

To regulate smoking in public places is a better proposal. The foul atmosphere of cinemas and some theatres is a reproach.

But if restrictions are to be applied to tobacco, as they have to smoke from chimneys, why not also to car fumes? It is time some cleansing apparatus on exhaust pipes was made compulsory.

The tobacco manufacturers have spent a lot of money on research into lung cancer and have published the results without fear or favour. As they say themselves, still more is needed.

If they could find how to take the risk, but not the pleasure, out of cigarettes, they would do themselves and the public a great service.

The report presented seven recommendations for possible action by government:

  1. ‘more education of the public and especially schoolchildren concerning the hazards of smoking
  2. ‘more effective restrictions on the sale of tobacco to children
  3. ‘restriction of tobacco advertising
  4. ‘wider restriction of smoking in public places
  5. ‘an increase of tax on cigarettes
  6. ‘informing purchasers of the tar and nicotine content of the smoke of cigarettes
  7. ‘investigating the value of anti-smoking clinics to help those who find difficulty in giving up smoking.’

Looking back after more than 50 years, we can see that the aims of the report’s authors had been achieved. Indeed, in one case action has gone beyond what they had asked for (the health warning on cigarette packets has evolved into a blunt warning that ‘smoking kills’.)

The report sold well in the UK and the US and it received widespread and largely positive press coverage. But it did not initially lead to government action.

Some limited restrictions on TV advertising were introduced in 1965 and the Health Education Council (now Health Education Authority) was formed in 1968. It commissioned anti-smoking campaigns from Saatchi & Saatchi in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

So the initial response was disappointing, and after a brief decrease, numbers of those smoking (especially women) began to rise again.

The Royal College of Physicians decided to keep campaigning. A follow-up report ‘Smoking and Health Now’ was published in 1971 (this described the deaths from smoking-related diseases as a ‘holocaust’) and the College established the campaigning group ASH (Action on Smoking and Health).

Further reports followed in 1977 and 1983 – by which time attention had shifted to the issue of passive smoking.

Today, the UK has the strongest controls on tobacco of any country in the EU. Banning tobacco advertising, increasing taxes, banning smoking in public places have all helped to make smoking abnormal – but government was initially slow to act.

The campaign against smoking is now seen as a model for other public health campaigns (only this week doctors have called for an increase in the price of sweetened drinks). It marked a shift from doctors focusing on treating infectious diseases to campaigning on chronic (‘lifestyle’) disease, using the tools of public relations and public affairs.

So public affairs is OK, just not in the public sector?

6 Aug

The populist move by Communities and Local Government secretary Eric Pickles to end 'lobbying on the rates' is good politics (following on from the bonfire of the quangos).

"Taxpayer-funded lobbying and propaganda on the rates weakens our democracy" are words ascribed to Pickles in his department's press release (that wouldn't be propaganda though; surely that's public relations).

Lobbying always sounds bad, especially when one publicly-funded body is lobbying another part of government in support of its own interests. Who can argue against a reduction in taxpayer-funded lobbying and propaganda?

The language is archaic though. Lobbying implies something covert and undemocratic; propaganda always suggests evil intent, though there can be 'white propaganda'; public relations is at least capable of being open and accountable. The rates – for anyone reading this younger than me – was a discredited system of local government taxation that was replaced by the current Council Tax (after the controversial interlude of the so-called Poll Tax).

But while I've no argument with the politics of this move, here's an objection at a more philosophical level.

If you have one monolithic government (let's view this as a communist model for argument's sake), then clearly it's nonsense to have one branch lobbying another. It wouldn't happen in China, would it?

But if your philosophy is in favour of small government and the redistribution of powers to localities and communities (surely the thinking behind the Big Society), then you are in favour of diversity of provision and plurality of expression. This means there will be more organisations competing for funding and attention: community groups, activists, not-for-profit organisations and local government all using public relations techniques (up to and including lobbying and propaganda) to support their causes and to defend their licences to operate.

It sounds popular to attack government waste including the spending on PR – but the way I see it the Big Society and the devolution of powers to communities will result in more PR, not less.

Lobbygate: new calls to regulate

22 Mar

There's nothing new in calls to regulate lobbyists. Except that right now, with an election looming, there appears to be growing cross-party consensus on the issue (given impetus by the Stephen Byers sting).

Chancellor Alistair Darling has said how, in a democracy, everyone should be free to approach their elected representatives. Yet this view that there is no need for a specialist public affairs business is contradicted by the call to name and regulate practitioners. How many citizens, small businesses or charities would take this step of becoming registered? How many know where to turn amidst the complex layers of local, regional, national and European government? What is a matter for an MP (MEP, MSP or AM), a minister or a Whitehall civil servant?

The answer clearly lies in greater transparency. Representation ('lobbying') should be permitted, but disclosure of special interests should be a requirement. This has been resisted up to now by some firms working for clients who seek to keep their interests private.

Continue reading

Shocking – or not?

24 Aug

In public relations theory, publics form around issues and public relations is needed when the attitudes or actions of an organisation or the public have consequences for the other. In other words – no problem, no public relations.

So it's really no surprise that conflict creates public relations problems and a demand for PR advice. Yet cashing in on conflict will always be presented as something sinister, as in this newspaper report. Critics of the PR business (Stauber and Rampton; Miller and Dinan) will see this an an evil example of capitalism ('cash for conflicts') and as more evidence of PR-as-propaganda.

PR academics (who aren't always apologists for PR) are exploring different concepts: PR as public diplomacy, and the role of PR in conflict resolution. That's consistent with the academic theory proposing 'win-win' outcomes based on the 'two-way symmetrical' approach.