Posts Tagged ‘spin’

The Hillsborough Disaster and the Fresh Dangers of Media Manipulation

The long-overdue answers about police conduct during the appalling Hillsborough disaster have captured the media, and particularly the red-top, imagination. It’s small wonder- the tragedy is ingrained into our national psyche to a degree unmatched by any comparable event. Understandably, the families of the 96 have campaigned unrelentingly for justice, but the fascination extends beyond them through British working class and middle class culture.

Why? Well, the images shown on Grandstand and subsequently burned into the brains of a generation probably have something to do with it, as do the frankly peerless communication skills of bereaved father Trevor Hicks- a man of colossal dignity and humbling demeanour. For me, though, there is a deeper fear helping to drive this. Hillsborough laid bare just how easy it is for propagandists to manipulate the media. To an extent which only now becomes completely clear, publicity material and records of the event have been doctored and re-doctored to an extent which can only be described as Orwellian.

The results of this enquiry are on one level to be taken at face value: a much needed step on the journey towards transparency and justice following a black day in British history. However, on another, they should come as a warning. If this level of spin was possible back in the hard-nosed 80’s, think how vulnerable a post-Leveson press, facing an over-swelled PR industry, might be.

My Thoughts on The Olympic Torch Fiasco from Early June

The Mail’s furore at the Olympic torch sponsor-gate is misplaced. It’s emerged that, whilst a large proportion of torch bearers are the promised saintly examples of youthful attainment and inspiration, a few are portly middle managers called Kevin, whose achievements stretch little further than turning up to work for a company whose coffers are helping fund the relay. To which I say, what did you expect? It’s reasonable to want to have a go on a toy you’re paying for. The issue here isn’t sponsorship in sport, it’s the way that sponsorship is sold to the public.

According to official communications, revenue from sponsorship accounts for more than 40% of Olympic revenues. Partners also provide ‘vital technical services and product support to the whole of the Olympic Family.’ You don’t have to tunnel far through the bullshit to understand that the Olympics could not in a million years happen on their modern scale without hefty corporate backing.

Here’s the thing: by and large, this is not a problem. Obviously, nobody wants to watch a month long ad disguised as a sporting event, but provided a few moral scruples are applied and a balance is struck between idealised narrative and what’s required to fit the bill, I can’t imagine that many people in our commoditized world have a serious issue with corporate funding per se.

The reason that there is an issue- and unquestionably there will be more issues before the world’s athletes touch down on British soil- is the total lack of this kind of frank talk in LOCOG’s communications. The British Public were sold a 21st century fairytale, in which the torch was to be escorted through a series of autumnal hedgerowed lanes, tastefully graffitied urban jungles and the set of Downton Abbey by an unrelenting stream of youth club leaders and the cheerfully disenfranchised. What they got was reality, where for every few stirring stories of personal triumph over adversity, we are required to tolerate one Ralph-Lauren wearing project manager with a dopey grin on his mug.

The question is now begged of how many more flies remain to be picked out of the ointment. The Olympics is, by and large, a purely commercial proposition to a sponsor, and they won’t have paid without significant assurances around logo visibility, ticketing allowances and more. We had another flicker of media rebellion last week amidst revelations about the price of eating and drinking inside the stadium. The press and the public will not swallow a myth forever- in fact, feed them one and they’ll start actively looking to disprove it. Unless you really can offer them happily ever after, there is no way round the need for some transparency and honesty.

The Olympics has always been a vehicle for outrageously overblown propaganda- the torch relay itself was largely invented by Joseph Goebbels for the Berlin Olympics of 1936 as a means of portraying perceived ideological links between Naziism and Ancient Greece. However, in a Now Economy defined by vocal crowds and marmite world views, it’s pretty hard to make this kind of thing stick. Rather than risk it, you’re much better off speaking to people like adults than risking a half-pregnant promotional fiasco.

Tim Bell: A Surprisingly Erudite Spokesman for an Industry

Allow me to begin, somewhat cautiously, with a disclaimer: I do not agree with many of the political or moral views of Tim Bell, the legendary ex-S&S lobbying supremo who has found himself continually in the spotlight since the emergence of the Bell Pottinger scandal last year. Without going too far into it, I have conducted my business in a manner quite different to the manner in which he has conducted his, and there are reasons for this. He might argue it’s a reason why his business is much bigger

However, I could not help but be sincerely impressed by his appearance on Newsnight on Tuesday. Hauled up in front of Paxman as an unofficial spokesman for a whole industry, he cut an imposing figure, singled out from the mob of commentariat who’d been debating the issue of government trust more generally just prior. He proceeded to give a dignified and restrained defence of his profession which successfully placed most of the blame for recent wrongdoings onto the government, acknowledged whatever issues he was beholden to acknowledge and pretty much silenced Paxman.

Aside from anything else, Bell’s commitment to maintaining a passionate and engaged defence of his company’s work must have come as a much-needed morale boost to Bell Pottinger employees. Lord knows they’ll be in need of some TLC in the wake of the PRCA investigation and all clear. It’s a remarkable thing to see such a powerful and inspiring figurehead in a modern business, no matter what the nature of that business is. History shows us that most great PR companies have had a strong figurehead to guide them through calm and stormy waters alike.

His defence might be broken down into three equally effective strands. Bell began with a variant on the Kenneth Clarke ‘fuss about nothing’ shtick- ‘Salesmanship in a sales meeting is perfectly reasonable’ he said of allegations of ‘boasting’ directed at Tim Collins. He moved on to question the qualifications of those savaging his profession- ‘you haven’t the faintest idea what a lobbyist is’ he told Paxman. Finally, he delivered a powerful tour de force: a demand that the media acknowledge the necessity of lobbying in some form. Of the proposed Statutory Register of Lobbyists (which, at least publicly, he stated no objections to), he pointed out that a selection of the country’s most august investigative journalists are currently lobbying to bring such a thing into being.

I’m reminded of Edward Bernays- another man expert at turning self-defence into advertising. His 1928 book ‘Propaganda’- a familiar tome on the shelves of any PR- has often been hailed not only as an apology for the PR industry but a work of propaganda in itself. Bernays picked up a fair few clients through the release of the book, in which he subtly manages to plug virtually all of his own greatest hits.

It’s pretty easy to imagine any powerful figure from the business world watching Bell’s performance and marking him down for future hire. Certainly I can think of a number of FTSE 100 companies for whom this will have been a welcome reminder of his influence and skill set. There are many good reasons why lobbyists and corporate PRs shun publicity (ROLAND Rudd, supposedly the most powerful man in the PR industry according to the PRWeek powerbook, is famously averse). However, Bell proves that, if you do it right, publicity needn’t open you up to ridicule, no matter how unpopular your work.

Wolf, Boob jobs and the Limits of Corporate Morality

On Tuesday I got involved in a good, old fashioned almighty Twitterstorm. Kicked off by the recent re-ignition of the age-old breast implant debate, it effectively centred around Newsnight, and the embattled Health Minister Anne Milton, besieged on all sides by parties with a variety of grievances.

Star of the show, however, was Naomi Wolf, who waded in calmly and with considerable dignity to point out that the dangers of breast implants aren’t exactly a surprise. As she said with delicious poise, ‘I wrote a book about this, which was reported in every major news outlet’. She referred to ‘twenty five years of data’, and told Milton, quite simply ‘if you don’t know this, you’re in the wrong job’.

As I subsequently tweeted, we should pity as much as we chuckle at the poor ministry PR pixie who seemingly failed to even google the issue before her boss went on air- bright eyed interns everywhere take note. However, there is something far more sinister than ‘Thick of It’-esque bungling here.

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Alex Hall: Unfortunate, Out of Her Depth and Beyond Salvation

The performance of Alex Hall, Jeremy Clarkson’s now-infamous-once-gagged ex, on ‘That Sunday Night Show’ last week was a classic example of the dark underbelly of the kiss and tell process. Your publicist finds an op, you do it no matter what, and you end making a quick facial omelette. It’s like Faust’s pact with the devil except even more boring to watch as it’s acted out.

Hall was somehow savaged by a panel which contained, amongst others, professionally ineffectual wall hanging Louis Spence and Chiles himself, the world’s least threatening man. Even worse: she has achieved the exact opposite of her presumed aim. Following her constant, whining ubiquity over the past few days, the only sane response is to actually feel sorry for Clarkson. She’s unlikely to make the money she wants, but even if she does, it’ll be pretty tainted now.

Rumour has it that Hall has fired Clifford following the debacle. It’s fascinating to me that this is the conclusion people have drawn: much more likely he’s quietly given her the shove. He sat next to her, blandly besuited like a court-appointed attorney in a police drama, ashen faced as she shot herself in the foot time after time. An attempted gag in which she turned the initials used to refer to her case under the injunction (a.m.m vs h.x.w) into a faux-provocative acronym fell flatter than Spence’s washboard abs. ‘Adulterous Motor Mouth vs. Hurt Ex Wife’, if you’re interested. Cue slow clap.

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Stripping For Votes Could Work, Just Nobody Tell Theresa May

The video of Polish politician Katarzyna Lenart stripping for votes has generated the kind of online buzz that other party political broadcasts (and I use the term in its loosest sense) could only dream of. Shot on what appears to be a pretty low grade camera and featuring a swivel chair that wouldn’t look out of place in the head office of a packaging company in Slough, it looks a bit like something you’d find on Babestation at 3am. Still, at least she doesn’t stoop to airbrushing.

The knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss this out of hand. It’s not just crazy, it’s obvious. Surely even the voyeuristic, big brother guzzling, internet porn fed, fetid mess of a world we live in wouldn’t fall for something so desperate. It may be getting watched, but it won’t win votes.

Having said that, futurology is a tricky discipline, especially in the fad happy world of politics. Perhaps Lenart’s dance is so mad that it works. Lord knows we’ve been waiting for something to kick off the ‘digital elections’ repeatedly promised- and denied- through campaign strategies over the past few years.

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The Ceri Rees Story: Validating Chinese Government Policy?

The tale about Ceri Rees- an upbeat but apparently mentally challenged woman allegedly repeatedly invited to appear on the X Factor for the sole purpose of ratings-grabbing rejection- has really captured the tabloid imagination yesterday. This has the shape of something that could seriously run and run.

The latest Mail piece by Richard Price, which (in its online form) incorporates nearly 2000 words of surgically targeted attack on the show, including interviews with a hapless carer of Rees’s and a spokesperson for mental health charity Mind. It would make it without question into my list of “top ten examples of stories you don’t want floated about your brand” if I was the kind of person who kept inane lists.X Factor Contestant

The sincerity and depth of feeling of the coverage, however, marks this out as more than a simple lesson in the devastating consequences of poison publicity. This is not just an unfortunate expose of one woman’s treatment, it is a tailor-made vehicle for injecting awareness of the fundamentally flawed reality show process into the mind of even the least media-savvy member of the public.
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Lib Dem Conference: A Leaky PR Ship With No-one Manning the Hull

In his Today programme interview with Justin Webb yesterday, Nick Clegg’s intended, unflappable nice guy image was showing the kind of serious wear and tear that can only result from a shortage of publicity muscle and back room support. By turns repetitive and needlessly confrontational (over the question of Italy, for instance, he veered back and forth before tersely interjecting that noting the difference between Britain and Italy was ‘a statement of the obvious’), he answered questions like a man in HomeBase asking after a product he’s forgotten the name of.  When you’re getting rattled by Justin Webb, you know you really have a problem.Dead yellow bird

The conference as a whole seems to have been getting more coverage than any other party conference in recent memory. Journalists can sense the chinks and cracks forming in the lib dem PR armour. All this is fuelled by the #ldconf twitter discussion which is more overwhelmingly negative than even a cynic like myself could have predicted, with some particularly quotable intrusions from John Prescott, who recently responded to journalists irate at accreditation issues with the somewhat inflammatory tweet “Is the #LDConf accreditation crisis at a conference centre proof they can’t organise a p***up in a brewery?”.

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The Saatchi & Saatchi Fuck Up Shows Why Storytelling is Best Left to PRs

For those who’ve not heard, a Saatchi & Saatchi campaign for client Toyota has led to a $10m suit being filed against the ad firm and the car company, as well as various individuals connected with the campaign.

The campaign, which allowed people to sign up their friends to be ‘pranked’ with a serious of worrying emails from one of 5 colourful fictional characters, was a bungled attempt by the Saatchi suits to make the world’s most boring car company look radical. This is a textbook example of why forging the brand narrative is best left to the publicists: the creative excellence of Ad Agencies does not extend to long form narrative content.blank billboard

In other words, it was a textbook example of advertising as insular and irrelevant communication. Instead of seeking to connect with any true brand narrative or profile, the Saatchi & Saatchi team betrayed their arrogance and remained convinced of their idea of what the brand needed, irrespective of what people actually wanted.

Ad folk lack understanding of the psyche of the news agenda: unlike PRs, they aren’t programmed to anticipate the downside, to work the worst case scenario into the fibre of their strategy.

Amanda Duik, the woman suing the company, was apparently targeted over a week long period with emails- genuine, for all she knew- from a football hooligan character called ‘Sebastian Bowler’, who came complete with his own S&S-created myspace profile and other web-based proofs of existence. She reckons she experienced sufficient mental distress over the terrifying period to sue for massive damages from all involved.

Those who don’t follow my thoughts closely might be surprised that I’m condemning S&S for this: what differentiates it from the kind of stunts perpetrated by myself and my influences? It’s certainly not because I’ve decided to clamber onto my high horse.

When classic Hollywood movie publicist Jim Moran placed a lion in a motel room under the name ‘TR Zan’ to promote the release of a strikingly similarly named movie, he caused a good deal more distress than S&S have here.

However, his stunt did what good PR does: it tapped into the popular conversation and interwove the brand narrative with it. It spoke of wilderness and adventure, which was exactly right at a time when movies were reflecting the increasingly adventurous spirit of the American public. It had also involved significant calculation of risk, and understood that inevitable bad press would be absorbed by the whole daring nature of the thing.

In part it’s a question of money: ad firms, arguably, have too much. Insular ad campaigns are bred when teams have the time and the resources to ponder their angles until they’re warped out of all recognition, over-thought. PRs, by contrast, are fleet footed. Their spatial awareness of the publicity landscape is second to none because careers spent responding to repeated brand events in real-time have honed their instincts and trained them never to slip up.

It also adds weight to a pet theory of mine: of communications professionals, it’s the PRs who skew furthest to the right (creative) side of the brain. Rightbrained functions, both numerical and linguistic, are much more involved with the comparative, the contextual, the pragmatic. While the leftbrain has the advantage when rigorously pursuing a clear, single minded idea, it must be difficult to wrap a leftbrained mind around an idea as mutable and intangible as a brand narrative.

While I think that Duik is probably taking this rather too seriously, her lawsuit should come as a warning to ad folk everywhere. In the modern world, the hierarchy of ideas does not flow from the comms professionals to the public. Communications must be discursive, responsive, and above all, narrative. Nobody understands this better than a good PR.

Spin, Weddings, Money and the House of Windsor

Piers Morgan dismisses the idea that the British Secret services ever murdered anyone. In a new movie documentary feature, Unlawful Killing, Piers suggests, if MI5 don’t kill the baddies, what’s the point of them?

I feel that the new Royal couple may have a similar problem. I might have got hold of the wrong end of the stick, but they seem to be playing down much of the glamour that is surely an essential part of the royal schtick. Kate Middleton is subtly selling the idea she will be nothing like her deceased mum-in-law to be (there’s a simpler way, Kate – don’t promote landmine charities!).

What is the point of royalty if there is no glamour? The Royal spin machine is much more professional that it was thirty years ago, but that very spin cycle seems to be rinsing out the parts that make royalty royal. They balance media relations with some tough, side of stage legal rottweilers and these snarling beasts control the minds of editorial ambition. Read the rest of this entry »