To be in PR or not to be in PR, that is the question

ICCO ‘Tis the season of international public relations conferences, with IPRA Congress in Jo’burg two weeks ago, ICCO in Milan last week, and The Holmes Report Global event in Miami later this month.

Like IPRA, ICCO was excellent. Under the leadership of my Ketchum oppo David Gallagher and PRCA head Francis Ingham, ICCO is now really relevant to the challenges and opportunities facing the global public relations consultancy industry.

Big themes last week were – again – creativity, measurement & analytics, talent, the battle with advertising and for the ears of CMOs, and the relevance of what we do (dialogue, engagement) to the challenges facing the world.

One recurrent question – again not new – was: is “public relations” the right term for what we do in an integrated, earned/paid/owned/shared digital world? Is “communications” a better term? Does “PR” attract talent or potentially scare it off.

All good questions.

Here’s my take.

I have now been in this business – PR – for 33 years, probably longer than the average lifespan of my colleagues at Weber Shandwick. So I am fairly proud of the term “PR”. That said, part of my career was as a political spin doctor, one of the branches of PR which has brought the profession into some disrepute (not the only one. Look at the celeb publicity industry. Look at the behaviour of brands flouting convention and trust on sustainability etc.)

I am very wedded to the definition of PR in the ‘idiot’s guide’ that my first boss gave me after I failed as a music writer: “public relations is the dialogue between an organisation and its publics”. Dialogue! In a world of rising levels of fear, suspicion, cynicism, scepticism, cultural barriers – isn’t that more relevant than ever??

But – until the social media revolution were we really in the dialogue business? We were largely in the press release business, not that different from the advertising business (except their clients paid for space and they had nicer offices and company cars). Talking at, in broadcast mode, not dialogue.

Then the Internet, and it’s child prodigy social media, arrived. Everything changed.

Now we are still in the earned media business. But we are also in the paid, shared, owned media business. Some of those involve dialogue and engagement. Most actually. Some don’t. But all require engagement. So we are in the (integrated) communications business.

OK, I am losing myself now!

You get my drift.

Kinda angels on the head of a pin stuff.

But is it? PRPR has a reputation problem. Some of this is our fault, we haven’t focussed enough in recent history on things like measurement and ROI (impact on our clients’ or employer’s business as opposed to image and media profile), innovation, creativity. Caricatures like the PRs in Sex & the City, The Thick of It, VEEP, Ab Fab etc were partly based on the way some of our practitioners liked to prance and preen themselves in front of the media and opinion leaders, who then took sweet revenge. That problematic reputation still hampers our attempts to recruit talent from diverse industries and communities.

So maybe “communications” is a better way to go.

But if we stick to our principles, our founding tenets as an industry – see the “dialogue” definition above – then we should be proud to be part of the industry.

After all, PR is both growing as well as growing in influence. Almost 60% of senior in house CCOs now report to the CEO or chairman or board, which is up 10% on less than a decade ago. 35% of global CCOs now have responsibility for brand communications as well as corporate comms – the rise of the CCMO.

So, are we in PR or communications? Does it matter?

Imagine the conversation at a dinner party, or with your mum.

“And what do you do?”

“I’m in PR.”

“In what?”

“Actually I’m in the communications business.”

“You sell phones?”

Go on, you decide.



I must have attended around twenty Labour Party conferences over the years, first as an activist, then as a party staffer and spin doctor, and then as a lobbyist. Not an evolution that will play well with the average member clapping delightedly at Jeremy Corbyn’s speech yesterday and celebrating “getting our party back”.

(Back from who? The Blairite control freaks? The voters? Worth bearing in mind that Labour members may have elected Corbyn, but voters elected Labour MPs, most of whom regard Corbyn and their potential political oblivion with horror.)

While he was speaking back home in the UK, I was giving a speech on public relations, truth telling and reputation at the excellent IPRA Congress in Jo’burg. Big themes of the event and the many great presentations were the death of spin, and the need for authenticity, dialogue and real engagement by business and business leaders.

One senior in house Corporate Communications Officer I interviewed for my talk had commented on the irony of PR people being dubbed spin doctors by journalists when it was often us trying to seek out and tell the truth, a truth often then “spun” by reporters to reflect their or their proprietors world view. I am sure Corbyn’s team will be feeling the same way as they sift through today’s headlines.

A similar theme was playing out back home it seems. Commenting on Corbyn’s debut, The Guardian had this to say:

“With his overwhelming support from party members, Mr Corbyn has earned the right to do things differently and in his own way. Today he did both. His speech trashed almost the entire playbook of modern media-savvy political orthodoxy, with no conventional clap lines, few soundbites, and in all likelihood not a single focus-group-tested theme.”

Britain's leader of the opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn delivers his keynote speech at the party's annual conference in Brighton

Mea culpa. There is some truth to the assertion that Corbyn’s election by the majority of Labour members and three quid texters was a big “fuck you” to the years of careful message management, a formidable media machine and even “control freakery” that has its roots back in the 80′s when I went to work for Peter Mandelson on Labour’s press team, a time of horror at Labour’s near annihilation in 1983 and the start of the long road back to electability. Yes we did focus groups, yes we used modern marketing techniques, yes we put voter friendly faces on TV and kept vote frighteners on a leash. Guilty as changed. And yes, maybe it all went a bit too far.

So is there a similarity between the way Corbyn is trying to do things differently, be the antithesis of spin, and what we were talking about far away in sunny South Africa?

On the surface yes. People want authenticity, from brands and CEOs and politicians. They want to be talked by humans, not pre programmed marketing machines churning out key messages and soundbites. Human to human communications,

People are more savvy, sceptical. People are more connected and resistant to being talked at and down to, including by the media who they often distrust as much as they distrust business, governments and institutions.

So is Corbyn just trying to do what enlightened CEOs and brands are trying to do? Be authentic? Connect?

To a point Lord Copper.

The best CEOs engage internally and externally. (At Weber Shandwick we have researched these trends and our “CEO Reputation Premium” report is available on our various websites.) Corbyn is engaging internally with those who elected him. But the Labour conference, and God knows I have experienced my share of them, is just a physical incarnation of the Twittersphere echo chamber. It’s not the real world. That is outside the conference hall. Voters. The “customers” of politics.


Customers want authenticity and engagement, but they also want products and services that work and make their busy complex lives better. Time will tell if a Corbyn led Labour Party will deliver those as opposed to another new style of politics and making elements of the party feel good about themselves again for a while.

Why are we so behind the curve on diversity in PR?

In my previous posts reflecting on my 20 years in a PR agency, I have written about the challenges, opportunities and changes I have seen over two decades agency-side. In my final one I return to an issue I feel strongly about, which in recent years the PRCA and other agency and in-house leaders have rightly become active on, but where change is very slow. I am talking about diversity.

Although there is research that shows, in terms of leadership roles and closing gender pay gaps in the UK, we still have way to go on gender equality, I am proud to be at an agency in which the majority of leaders in the UK are women, and that has been named by no less that The Holmes Report as the most gender equal of all the global agencies. (Proud also that we are a #HeForShe office in London.)

Although in the past our industry has, to its cost, lost a lot of female talent and experience post having children, more enlightened attitudes to flexible working, and the digital communications revolution, have largely seen an end to such rhinoceros-hide attitudes amongst agency and in-house heads.

Over my 20 years I have not heard any of my lesbian or gay colleagues express any experience of career limiting prejudice in agencies. Some of my top and most successful colleagues, and friends in PR elsewhere, are gay.

Our failure is racial and social diversity. We are not alone in that. But we are the industry that claims to be the dialogue facilitators between organisations and their publics.

As I have done previously, I turned to PR Week as a reflection of our business. I counted all the photos in the recent edition. Out of 63 pictures of PR leaders, commentators and agency people, 61 were white. Worryingly, this edition included the industry’s top 30 under 30 rising stars.

In a subsequent edition, the situation was similar, and one of the few non whites pictured was actually President Obama.

As an industry that claims to understand Britain, we need to look and be a little more like modern Britain. It’s not good enough to merely claim to be an equal opportunities employer, and that anyone is free to apply for our traineeships. We have to work harder on outreach schemes to schools – given the potential talent from less advantaged backgrounds who are now put off university by the prospect of eye watering debt – as well as the less socially elite universities. We have to break down cultural barriers and misconceptions that stop young talent from considering our industry in the first place.

I am not the only agency leader I know who says he wouldn’t get on his own apprentice scheme these days, being a working class half Irish Salfordian with a second class arts degree from a lesser (in the league tables) university.

There are schemes out there – the PRCA and others can advise – and models like the excellent work The Media Trust does with media organisations. We just need to commit, show some leadership in our organisations, and try a bit harder to make real and not cosmetic change.

I am the first to admit that I have only dented the surface in my own agency. But I intend to keep trying.

Cannes, my fifth year, some thoughts

Personal highlights:

Celebrating two more Lions with Weber Shandwick and Prime colleagues against the backdrop of a beautiful Cannes sunset atop the Radisson Blu.



Unilever CMO Keith Weed’s keynote on Marketing for People. Check it out. Even included a spoof of one of his own campaigns.

Marketing for people


Prof Brian Cox onstage. Little to do with marketing really. Just like him. Northerner and former band member – “Things can (Cannes?) only get better” – who puts sexy into science. What’s not to like.


Hanging with Sasha Wilkins aka Liberty London Girl and seeing all that prolific tweet action happening live.



Watching Entourage leading man Adrian Grenier, UN Women’s inspirational Elizabeth Nyamayaro and Keith Weed join my agency’s president Gail Heimann to talk #HeForShe . Adrian was kind enough to send a photo get well wish to my poorly daughter,


Catching up with my old mate David Brain, APAC CEO of Edelman, after too long.

Viewing the work and particularly that tackling the tough issues and challenges, from FGM to child abuse, from climate change to hunger and poverty, from Nazis to gender stereotyping.



Low lights:

Getting up at four thirty to flee Cannes to beat the threatened blockade of the airport by striking taxi drivers and spending five hours drinking shit coffee in one of the worst airports I know. Though I did make a friend in the marathon lounge bum numb.


The incongruity of earnest discussions about Millenium Goals and global poverty on luxury yachts and in the midst of Mad Men excess

global goals pano

The crassness the night after the inaugural Glass Lions (celebrating gender equality campaigns),  awarding the PR Grand Prix to Always’ #RunLikeAGirl campaign, and at an event chaired by Save the Children’s Gender Equality Ambassador to celebrate the Millennium Goals (which include one on gender equality and tackling gender stereotypes) of some PR twit deciding to dress girls in skimpy frilly dresses as pastiche cinema usherettes to show us to our seats.



PR still not making the cut through in the Lions – more below.

So, five years since my first trip to the Cannes Festival. Then as a juror where I met my colleague and Prime creative supremo Tom Beckman and one of my favourite creatives and former colleague Gabriella Lungu. My London office won its second Lions, though most entries and winners were from advertising agencies.

Much breast beating and clothes ripping ensued in the PR world – why were we so uncreative, why were those bastards in advertising invading our space etc. I took the opposite view and wrote in my blog at the time that PR agencies should see Cannes as an opportunity to look at and learn from what advertising did so well. We were the newcomers stealing the drinks at advertising’s house party. They had been doing Cannes for sixty years.

Five years on I am a bit more sanguine. One juror trumpeted Cannes as a success for PR this year, because the majority of entries in the PR category were from PR firms. Yes but, I countered, the vast majority of Gold Lions winners were still ad agencies, or ad agency ideas further amplified by PR. Ah, that’s because they have deep pockets to fund pro bono campaigns for worthy causes that win big. Yes, but, you chose them as winners.

And if success is simply based on the number of agencies shelling out entry fees as opposed to winning recognition for the work, well that’s like the time I worked on an election campaign about which Campaign magazine declared “Labour won the campaign – but lost the election.”

Rather than pass the buck and put some good old fashioned spin on the issue, I think it is time for the PR agency world to accept that while we have upped our game on creativity since Cannes opened its doors to us, and we have broadened our intake to include advertising and digital creatives, we are still too often not in the lead on creative ideation. We often use our considerable skills to generate engagement and buzz and shares and likes around a creative idea – but all too often it is someone else’s idea.

(My lovely friend Gabriela is back in advertising where her edgy thinking is plugged straight into the heart of client engagement.)

The truth is that many of our industry’s creative ideas are just not big enough and break through enough. As Keith Weed said in his keynote, in the engagement era it is not enough to just grab people’s increasing short attention. You have to emotionally engage them with ideas and content they want to share (and, I would add, act on). And the PR Lion winning campaigns that engaged us this year, including the PR agency executive jury who voted them Golds,  were still largely not from PR agencies.


PR: what’s changed and what’s still needs to change, part 3

Welcome to the third instalment of my reflections on twenty years in a PR agency, what’s changed and what’s still needs to change

20 years in a PR agency this month – my agency Weber Shandwick in its various forms, and in various specialist, domestic and international roles – and 31 years in PR. In all that time, the most change has been in the past five years or so.

The Cannes Festival of Creativity, FKA The Advertising Festival, which kicks off today in earnest, opened its doors to our industry 6 years ago. Suddenly we were in the bigger world of bigger ideas (and bigger budgets). After a slow start we are holding our own. Last year a PR agency, Edelman, co-won the Grand Prix for the first time. (Proud to say that currently we are the most Cannes Lions winning PR firm in Europe.)


Digital and particularly social media have driven the pace of change. It has changed how we think of our approaches to communication. More engagement, less broadcast (even though, as I point out ad nauseum , our founding principle as a discipline was dialogue).

Creativity at the forefront – though less the creativity of whacky “free media” attracting stunts and photo opps and more the creativity of innovation and helping clients tackle the really difficult issues, seize the bigger opportunities and break through the online white noise and really engage with customers and citizens.

A real focus on measurement and ROI as we move from being a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants discipline to one that talks more about business impact and less about the volume of press clippings.

Creative technology (worth reading the post by our creative tech chief Patrick Chauphan on the Weber Shandwick EMEA blog) increasingly enabling us to bring our ideas to life rather than them ‘living’ on a flip chart in a brainstorm room.

Embedded image permalink


Diversifying our intake to include people from advertising, media buying, filmmaking, research and analytics, medical PhDs, computer programming, animation etc.

The PR agency world of today is a much faster paced, intellectually ambitious and curious world than it was 10 or even 5 years ago. It’s an enjoyable ride.

So what does that mean for people trying to break into the PR agency world today?

Firstly, you have to live the digital life, not just study it and be literate in case studies and have a moribund Twitter account. This year we have recruited more proven creative content creators in our trainee intake than ever before, whatever their academic background. I want to hire the next Jamal Edwards, not just the next Alastair Campbell.



Secondly, get literate in numbers, analytics, measurement.

Thirdly, balance your internships to include time with in-house teams, not just at agencies. Less and less career PR agency folk have spent time in house. You need a balance and to understand what goes on client side. Clients are seeking like minded partners not just service vendors.

Fourthly, look up from the college library computer screen and get curious about the world around you, the issues that are driving debate about business, culture and society. Those are the cross-winds clients are trying to negotiate. No brand exists in a cultural or societal vacuum. Preferably don’t just observe, participate. We have trainees joining us who have helped run non profit campaigns, taken a personal lead on issues.

Fifthly, brush up on your emotional intelligence. Listening is a greater skill in PR than being able to talk the hind legs off a donkey.


The pace of change in PR has never been faster. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

What’s changed and what still has to change – part two of my blog reflecting on 20 years this month in a PR agency


When I ran Shandwick Public Affairs back in the late 1990s, I once threatened to fire a staffer for referring to colleagues in the consumer practice as “the girls on roller skates”.

But in truth the guy had probably never met s consumer PR, let alone studied the work. In those days Shandwick was a relatively loose collection of different branded businesses in offices scattered across London, with no connectivity on clients or via technology, and little incentive or the knowledge to collaborate.

I set about wooing the heads of other businesses, most of whom were initially bemused by lunch invites from, and interest shown by, this suited creature from Planet Politics.

But it worked and I started to acquire tech clients and consumer brands by talking about something most of us take for granted, though clients often still see our industry as lacking – integration, fuelled by collaboration.

When I became UK CEO in the early noughties, I did my first talk to our consumer team. I said that it was wrong to regard politics as “corporate”, then a byword for spin doctors in suits and ties. Politics was consumer PR in its most naked form – trying to aggressively earn consumer preference for a brand that will govern many aspects of your life for years to come, not one brand of car or credit card over another.

For all the modern failure of political spin in a digital and politically disengaged world, modern political communications until recently did understand things that brands have learned from and now usually do better – the importance of insights and research, strategy, and seamless integration of messaging from the bumper sticker to the speech soundbite.

Collaboration takes trust, understanding, mutual respect and encouragement, and leadership from the top of agencies. Any senior people I have fired at my firm I have not fired for failure to hit numbers in the short term, but for failure to collaborate.

Fast forward to today. 90% of the clients in my London office use more than one practice area or specialism. That is true across our network. Companies are increasingly converging consumer brand and corporate brand, often under the same CCMO – Chief Communications & Marketing Officer. That’s the way their world is and agencies, or at least those with multiple disciplines and specialisms, have to work in the same seamless way. Nothing pisses clients off more than agencies playing the P&L barrier game.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking the niche specialist agencies. I like to learn from them and some of the PR leaders I admire are running them.  Indeed while convergence and integration is a trend, so is niche specialisation, either in industry verticals or sub-sections of those verticals like clean technology, consumer or corporate or digital healthcare, but also in niche services like employee engagement and sustainability.

Ten years ago niche agencies knocked multi-practice agencies as “generalists”. Quite how having fifty trend and brand and lifestyle savvy consumer specialists, with access to planners and creatives and data scientists, made my firm less consumer specialist than an independent firm of thirty consumer specialists, was never something I understood. It was bollocks then and even more bollocks now.

Of course the great thing about PR coming to Cannes six years ago is we now see the new wave of integration – across the marketing disciplines. Ten years ago the PR agency would be called in by the advertising agency to write a press release about their latest lovely ad. Now PR agencies are equal partners, if not the lead creative partner for the client. (I don’t want to understate it. Last year we partnered with Marketing Week magazine in the UK on a survey of CMOs on the state of client-agency relationships. The majority still saw the ad agency as their lead partner, but then proceeded to moan about them on things like engaging content creation and strategic thinking. A challenge but also an opportunity for PR agencies.)

So integration is a reality and collaboration is good and our industry is a better place where it happens.

Twenty years in PR agency land. What’s changed, what still needs to change?

Hello. Welcome to my sorely neglected, emotionally needy blog. It thinks I spend too much time with Twitter. I love it really.

Twenty years ago this month I took up my first PR agency role. I have been with the same firm in its various states of merger and evolution, and in various roles, ever since.

As an industry we are rightly talking a lot about our evolution, and I have done my fair share of panel discussions, conference keynotes, university and business school talks on the subject.

I thought it was worth reflecting on what has changed, and what has not changed fast enough, in a couple of blog posts this month.

Here’s the first.

Best wishes



Prior to joining my PR agency as an associate director in the fledgling PA practice  in June 1995, I had previously held a variety of in-house comms and campaign roles, having given up my dream of being a new wave music journalist ( running a fanzine in those pre-blog and website days involved a lot of glue and cutting and pasting, and selling your wares to queues of drunk punks in the rain outside grotty clubs – the glamour!), with the AA, the NUS, The Labour Party, in local government, The Princes Trusts and The National Farmers Union (an appointment which sparked my first PR Week headline, “Farmer’s Boy”).

It was a heady time of political change. I had never thought of a PR agency career, liking the influence I had as Peter Mandelson’s right hand guy in Labour communications, and trekking the world with The Prince of Wales’ entourage and press pack. I had used a PR agency and thought they were a useless bunch of smug suits.

But there I was in Christopher’s restaurant in Covent Garden, with Tom – now Lord – McNally, then head of public affairs at Shandwick, the largest independent PR firm in the world at the time, not just offering me a job but advising me what salary and car I should ask for. I came away in a daze, being used to modest public sector and non-profit salaries and lunching off the expense accounts of journalists.

I think and talk a lot about PR agency evolution. I find it fascinating. Despite the headline of my friend Robert Phillips’ recent and interesting book, the PR industry is a living, breathing, growing and fast evolving one, expanding its influence and broadening its intake at every turn. If occasionally suffering bouts of self doubt but rightly doing some intelligent introspection (and Robert’s book, “Trust me, PR is dead”, is part of that).

In terms if what has changed in my twenty years in the consulting industry, and almost 35 years in the industry in its various forms,  first is most definitely a move from  “who you know” to “what you know”.

(I realise this is a broad generalisation. In areas like lobbying, financial PR, political comms, publicity, contacts remain important, but contacts without content and context are a short lived asset.)

Back then our worth as senior PRs was measured by the fullness of our black – contacts – book first, our ideas second.

Having been used to being sought out as an informed and – mostly – reliable and “tirelessly available” (in the words of The Independent’s Don McIntyre in a profile he penned of me – political comms was a 24/7 pager-driven affair even in those pre-Twitter days) senior source, it felt uncomfortable to be selling myself on who I knew in politics and the media. The FT had helpfully described me as “a reasonably sized moth around the Blairite flame” (it was 1995, two years before I had the pleasure of working for my old boss Peter Mandelson on New Labour’s landslide election campaign).

But there I was on a sofa in Shandwick International’s HQ sat next to its then UK CEO, seeking his anointment in my new, and much better paid, job. He didn’t ask me what strategic insights I had learned over the years, what PR experience I would bring to his firm. He asked me  if my political contacts were as good as he had been led to believe.

I swallowed my pride and told him that the previous weekend Peter Mandelson had been best man at my wedding and Tony and Cherie Blair had sent flowers. I was in.

I tried from the start to take a different tack. Public affairs was seen as a pretty dodgy branch of PR back then, with no real ethics code and it’s reputation battered by “cash for questions” type media exposes. At the height of Blair’s untouchable majority, William Hague’s – the outgoing defeated Tory leader – deputy press secretary came to see me about a job. Priti Patel, now a doughty Asian woman minister around David Cameron’s cabinet table.

My Labour staff thought I was mad to entertain the idea of hiring a Tory. No other firm was. The hot currency were spotty arrogant researchers to backbench Labour MPS and someone who proudly told me at interview that they had done Gordon Brown’s photocopying. I didn’t  listen and hired Priti on the spot. Why? Not because of her contacts who were then – how things change! – deep in opposition and pretty useless to our clients. No. Priti turned up with her pager clipped to the lapel of her Chanel jacket. That told me she was my kind of tough, proactive, 24/7, blow the doors off press officer and ideal for my media division rather than the lobbying team.

As the media and our industry have been revolutionised by digital & social media, as noise levels rise, channels multiply, attention spans shorten and generational expectations change (hello Gen K/Z ), the ‘what you know’ rather than the ‘who you know’ has become more and more important.

It’s not that relationships are not important. Far from it. Journalists remain important to many if not most clients at one level of their communications. But there are less of them, with less time, and so many more routes to reach and engage target audiences. I always encourage trainees to read print media get to know journalists, go take a tour of a newsroom. But that’s just part of it.

The shift from contacts value to content & creativity premium has also allowed us to bring fresh, different minds and ideas and experience into the industry – more ‘T-shaped’ people with a deep specialist knowledge (sustainability, food science, clean technology, channel planning, sports etc etc etc) but a broad interest in the world of popular culture, innovation and current affairs in which our clients are now framed.

To be continued…

PR and politics: the two most intertwined professions.

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.

mad bad


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).

Sadly though, and ironically, another aspect our two “businesses” share is a poor reputation and public profile. But that’s another story. 

Archeology of Technology

I have a favourite slide for presentations at the moment. It illustrates, in horizontal bars of different colours, the speed at which various mass communication technologies took to reach a 50 million audience. Radio at the top with 38 years, down to Twitter with just 9 months. It looks like one of those sliced side views the earth, with the various periods of history shown as different coloured layers of soil and rock and prehistoric debris. I call it the Archeology of Technology.


I had a personal Archaeology of Technology moment at the weekend. My 8 year old wanted me to drive him to our nearest town with a toy shop so he could buy a skateboard with his pocket money. It was a mild and sunny spring morning, so we went in my old VW Beetle with the top down. It’s so old it has a cassette player rather than a CD player.

I dug out one of my ancient tapes, a compilation of 80′s stuff recorded off the radio. To do this you had to listen to the chart shows, wait for the idiot DJ to stop babbling over the intro to press record, then wait again, finger poised, until they threatened to start babbling again over the outro to hit the stop button.


The poor kid was treated to me waxing on about the joys of dancing to Clare Grogan and Altered Images doing “I Could Be Happy’ and to Heaven 17, and about how cassettes worked, when all he wanted to do was get his hands on a skateboard.


(And let’s remember than the Walkman was the Smartphone of its day in terms of personal technology and lifestyle desirability.)


Further back in my technology archaeology, before I had a radio cassette deck, we used to practice what would now be illegal downloads by taping friends’ albums live on a little portable cassette player. This involved playing the album on a stereo and painstakingly positioning the little microphone in the right point between the speakers to try and pick up the best recording. Often this involved having to do it several times as police sirens, barking dogs or friends’ little brothers and sisters yelling intruded on the recording. The result often sounded like you were listening through damp cotton wool. It was a labour of love.



I tried explaining all this to my bemused son, whose personal technology archeology starts with the laptop and tablet. He couldn’t figure out all the sweat and hassle involved. Or maybe he was just thinking about his skateboard.



I have been having some interesting conversations with senior political journalists, new media leaders, digital & social media managers for press and broadcast organisations and social media political consultants in recent weeks. It’s part of a study I am doing, with The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, on how social media might be used to engage people more in political debate and the forthcoming general election.

I will be looking specifically at engagement, as opposed to the media using social as just another channel to broadcast their coverage.

A dominant theme is control. Or loss of control.

Pre social media powerful media brands told us which way to vote. Who The Sun would back was almost as important an event in politics as the outcome of the election.


Source: Wikimedia

I still expect press & broadcasting to be a major influencer of how we make up our minds, but given the woeful state of political disillusion at the moment, it would be nice to see the media engage and inform more – and social media is ideally suited for that. An early good example is Sky News’ #Stand Up Be Counted, where the main party leaders faced questions live both from a studio audience of young voters and via Twitter and Facebook, and was produced in collaboration with Facebook. There was huge buzz on social media, from reactions to Ed talking about his career to Dave’s bafflement on tampon taxes.



Back to control.

Parties – and I speak as a former political spinner – try to control the dialogue and stage manage everything in a campaign. The media try to disrupt that. The most obvious recent example of control are the negotiations over the party leader TV debates.

The media in turn have liked to drive their often partisan views through their coverage and comment.

Social media has disrupted everything. I hope for the better.

Established journalists are no longer the sole source of information and views on politics. There are other voices now, other sources of information.

A gaff or offhand comment can now fly round the web in seconds on Twitter before established media even get their stories out.

The wrestling between the party campaign machines and the media, aside from the wrangling between the parties, was something we were spectators to. Now we can be players.

Friends and family have always been major influencers of how we vote. Now Facebook amplifies our take on the candidates and issues to our virtual friends and family. Hence the Conservatives spending over a million a year on their Facebook profile.

So the parties are losing control. The orchestration and spin will continue, but it’s just not as effective any more.

The media are losing control. They don’t dictate our views any more, and there are so many voices and influencers out there on social media.

The question is will we use social media to get engaged in the debate and take more control on politics ourselves.