There's a case for viewing commercial public relations as the 'acceptable face of capitalism'. Championing an organisation's responsibilities to all its stakeholders balances the pressure always to put shareholders and profits first. Corporate Social Responsibility and environmental statements play their part in this.
Contrast this with party political public relations where there is a long tradition from Bernard Ingham to Damian McBride via Alastair Campbell of the PR adviser as chief 'attack dog' for his (my examples are all male) political boss. The unacceptable face, if you like, of public relations.
Why such a contrast between the corporate and political worlds? David Starkey, I imagine, would talk in terms of courtiers and princes. The political PR adviser is a courtier whose power comes solely from their close proximity to the prince, hence the need to take risks and retain the favour of the ruler. Call this the Machiavelli theory.
Politicians, in a democracy, stand or fall by their electoral success. So successful politicians tend to be an everyman (or woman) causing least offense to the electorate (and the Daily Mail). Maintaining an inoffensive public persona requires some strong arm tactics behind the scenes and (unelected) courtiers are more expendable than political princes.
Private sector bosses do not have this pressure to stand for election; they are undoubted kings of their courts. Yet they know they are accountable: to shareholders for profits, to employees for strategic leadership, to customers, regulators and communities. These various accountabilities need careful balancing, the role of corporate public relations.
Television is fascinated by monastic life – or rather, the reactions of ordinary people to living in a monastery.
Today the radio provided a different spin on this theme. A Dominican friar joined a public relations consultancy – Shine PR – in Radio 4’s The Real World. This short programme played on the contrasting lifestyles: twentysomething consumerism meets vows of ‘poverty, chastity and obedience’. It was never going to be a comfortable mix.
Friar Tim was a highly intelligent commentator. On arriving at the consultancy he mentioned his brand of ‘one word equity’: veritas (truth). He seemed more aware of the similarities between their lines of work than his hosts. He preaches the word, he knows his congregation (and attracts large numbers to services), he readily debates ethical issues. The key difference is that he’s not commercially focused. In reality, not all public relations is the brand of marketing communications practiced by this consultancy. But it made for good radio.
An hour long Channel 4 Dispatches programme this evening claimed to reveal the inside story of the true level of media manipulation and deception in the recent election campaign.
Its two main claims: that the Labour party orchestrated a letter writing campaign ‘to bypass the national media’. (According to the programme, ‘the writing of fake letters was official Labour policy’). And that it packed media photo opportunities with ‘endorsers’ (party supporters posing as ‘real people’). The subliminal message was one of anti-Americanism (since pseudo-events, public relations and fake elections were invented in the US).
Presenter Jenny Kleeman was likeably naive, but the shocked and horrified tone of this programme just will not do since the programme was based on the biggest deception of all. Its reporter posed as a Labour party volunteer and brought a hidden camera into work.
Spinwatch is about. The UK’s answer to PR Watch kicked off this week with a two day conference in Glasgow, as reported by the Guardian newsblog.
I’ll learn more about it when I hear from a colleague who attended the conference.
Luke Johnson, entrepreneur and Channel 4 chairman, shows himself to be alert to the influence of PR in this piece in the Telegraph. (Via PR Machine.)
With the expansion of the media industry, PR has moved out of the shadows and become a central part of the corporate world. Globalisation, advancing media technology and the rise of activist groups have all enhanced the status of PR.
The trade has become more sophisticated, moving from distributing press releases to managing relations with government and investors, as well as the press and broadcast media. Quite how the black art of PR peddles influence is difficult to determine – but it certainly works.
If you work in PR, you’re used to being eaten by a journalist (‘is it new, or is it surprising?’ was my most withering – but most valuable – put-down). Yet you rarely have an opportunity to bite back.
Julia Hobsbawm is attempting just that by calling for a ‘truth institute’ to scrutinise standards of journalism. Patrick Weever provides this commentary (posted on 7 December) on his Anti-Spin website:
I am saying, however, that Journalism IS higher up the food chain of truth. Journalism is about the pursuit of truth, that is the function of every journalist. The function of a PR person is to protect the client.
Brian MacLaurin writes well in Media Guardian about Guy Black’s challenge as press secretary to the Conservatives:
Control must be seen to be in the hands of elected politicians with matters of party discipline being enforced by the party leader and chief whip. The role of the PRO will be to ensure smooth communications both internally and externally… Never again can the message become the master.
Note also Why I’m no Alastair Campbell in The Observer.