OPINION: A word of advice before a media circus hits town - Internet adoption couple the Kilshaws may have received a more favourable press had they hired professional PR counsel. Adam Hill looks at the problems of DIY PR

Judith and Alan Kilshaw thought that dealing with the media was easy: answer a few questions, get your point across and thus favourably influence the viewing, listening and reading public.

Judith and Alan Kilshaw thought that dealing with the media was easy: answer a few questions, get your point across and thus favourably influence the viewing, listening and reading public.

On returning from the US last month with baby twins obtained through a web-based adoption agency, they held court on their own to the world's media. After a tabloid mauling, they would probably agree with the view of celebrity publicist Kizzi Nkwocha: 'Dealing with the press without an adviser is like going to court without a lawyer - you know you're going to lose but you don't know whether you are going to have your shirt on your back.'

Whether the couple got away with their shirts intact is a moot point. There was certainly something predictable about the unsavoury public flogging which unfolded, as Phil Hall, former editor of the News of the World and current editor-in-chief of Hello!, says: 'I could see a disaster waiting to happen; just the sheer subject matter meant they were on a hiding to nothing.'

The Kilshaws were, of course, not the first 'ordinary' people to be sunk by naivety, arrogance or stupidity. The basic rule - no advice, no chance - has scant exception. Indeed, rare is the example where 'Do-It- Yourself PR' has actually worked and for it to do so requires that the subject has a compelling story to tell.

So why do people do it? Max Clifford, no stranger to clients who find themselves in uncharted waters, explained: 'They are taken in by the media, and often they trust them. Regard the media as a minefield; you need a detector to give you a chance.'

Several journalists had actually suggested to the Kilshaws that they get a PR minder. The reasons for this were not entirely altruistic, of course - hacks would have benefited from someone to make sense of the media scrum - but it would have helped the protagonists in January's debacle.

Sky News north of England correspondent, Shirley Lewis, spent four days with the couple and believes arrogance rather than naivety was the prime reason for the Kilshaws' problems.

Lewis is adamant: 'She never wanted to shut up; they had no shame, they loved it. For example, they had no reason to make themselves available at 6.30 in the morning.'

Except for the fact that the limelight is seductive, as MacLaurin group media director, Ian Monk, points out: 'People very quickly become utterly addicted to it. This is a question of making sure reputation is managed. You don't appear on every show, in every paper - that's madness. Once someone is projected into the news they become fair game for scrutiny, and we all have corners of our lives we would prefer not to have held up.'

The media will not simply focus on what you want to tell them, it will look at other areas of your life, the seamier the better - particularly if you offered the main story to a rival. 'You just become a tool in the circulation battle,' Clifford adds.

And if your story centres on an activity such as 'buying babies', you need all the help you can get. It is a short step from 'disgusting' (Tony Blair's word for the practice) to the state of the putative parents' house, speculation over other methods of conception they had investigated, reports of 4am drinking sessions and curious tales about ghosts and black magic.

'It is very naive of someone to think they can conduct a successful campaign without advice,' says Henry's House director Julian Henry. He believes an exception to this is Newbury bypass eco-protester Daniel Hooper, better known as Swampy. 'He was articulate and passionate and was able to give them what they wanted while maintaining his integrity and position,' he adds.

Diana Mawdsley, mother of 27-year-old James Mawdsley, found herself in demand when her son was sentenced to 17 years in a Burmese jail for protesting against human rights injustices.

The contrast between this case and the Kilshaws could hardly have been greater - forgoing personal liberty in an honourable stand against a brutal, repressive regime is a world away from engaging in a legal, but morally dubious, activity.

But the argument against James - silly boy, knew he'd end up in jail, why should we be sympathetic - needed to be put forward for the sake of balance. Diana Mawdsley faced the media without the benefit of media training.

'It was daunting and none of us enjoyed it. But we had a kind press, never hostile. Some questions were sometimes difficult but we were very fairly treated. I didn't think we were being trapped. But I don't know how I'd cope with a hostile press,' she told PRWeek.

The short answer to that is three-fold: get media training or advice, restrict your appearances, and make sure that you address the skeletons in your cupboard. And remember Nkwocha's words: 'If you dance with the devil you'll get pricked by his horns. The Kilshaws said too much, too often and people began to ask questions. And that's what you want to avoid.'

Watching the Kilshaws was, Clifford says, like having a dream in which you witness an event but are powerless to stop it. 'You can see them opening the gate to the minefield and rushing towards it. To them it was a beautiful green meadow.'



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