As the election campaign gathers pace we are reminded once again of how close and overlapping two “professions” are – PR and politics.
A UK general election campaign may not be the biggest spending marketing event – or anything as big financially as a US election – but it is one of the most sophisticated and – potentially – engaging. Last week’s “non debate” was a pure exercise in modern public relations. Little control on the message, two way communications and a mass of white noise in the social media echo chamber. (Our Prime Minister even worked in PR as an in house communications director – I pitched to him once. Didn’t get the business sadly. I also once turned George Osborne down for a job with my lobbying firm, but I did hire Priti Patel, now one of the brightest sparks on the Tory benches.)
Source: Sky News
But is the closeness of our two lines of business, with almost no discernible barrier between, a good thing?
The man who started Shandwick forty one years ago, Lord Chadlington, was and remains immersed in politics. The guy who hired me, Lord McNally, was a Labour and SDP MP, a minister and is a leading figure in the House of Lords. I was a much more lowly Labour spin doctor. (I don’t regard my time working in politics as PR – it was propaganda, but I learned a lot from it and my brilliant ex boss and mentor, Lord Mandelson.)
On Friday I attended a fascinating event at the LSE, Polis’ “Vote 2015″ conference on politics and the media, organised by Charlie Beckett. It was awash with top journalists and broadcasters, pollsters, politicians, marketers, social media activists and thinkers.
The first person I ran into was my old friend, Tony Blair’s former top aide Angie Hunter. Angie is now a senior advisor at Edelman. In the evening I want to the retirement party of a former colleague and for most of the past decade head of communications at EDF, Andrew Brown, one of the nicest and most effective operators in PR. Andrew worked in both media and politics and at EDF showed modern PR at its best, influencing what the company did rather than just said. Also there was one of my oldest friends, Michael Prescott, a former political journalist, now head of comms at the mighty BT, and a formidable strategic mind.
You get the picture. And there are many other examples, from Charles Lewington to Alistair Campbell. The latest issue of PR Week heralds the arrival of former Labour Secretary of State Jacqui Smith into our fold.
At a fortieth birthday bash I hosted for Weber Shandwick’s London office last year, Lord Chadlington quipped in his speech that back in the 60′s and 70′s PR teemed with failed politicians and journalists. Those who switched to PR largely traded on their contacts rather than their strategic brilliance. Today I think those with political and media backgrounds largely add enormous value, experience and strategic insight to our industry. Politics and PR are now almost indistinguishable as practices.
PR is traditionally a business that “flies by the seat of its pants” as John Lloyd remarked in his recent critique of PR and the media, “Journalism and PR” (published by The Reuters Institute). Still too many of our practitioners skip the strategy bit, or don’t question the strategy they are handed, and focus on tactics. People with good and cutting edge political experience bring strategic insight, forged against a background of the invasive 24/7 real time scrutiny that brands, CEOs and organisations increasingly face.
In his brilliant new book on UK political marketing, “Mad Men and Bad Men”, Sam Delany tells great stories of how myopic UK political PRs and their bosses were back in the 60s, until the marketing and polling folks got involved. That has largely changed.
So as we sit back and watch the PR-driven integrated campaigns unfold, hit or miss, I for one celebrate the closeness of our two practices ( of course I am NOT talking about the murkier end of what the press refer to as lobbying, politicians trading crudely on their contacts, often with a bad ending).