OPINION: The art of PR is best kept in the shadows

A wise chronicler of the age, Matthew Parris made the following provocative observation in his Times column this week: ‘By the very act of outsourcing his reputation a man shapes it.’

‘The media do not like their occasional puppeteers to show the public the strings'
‘The media do not like their occasional puppeteers to show the public the strings'

He added that to ‘enlist conspicuously’ the services of image-makers risked saying more about an individual than the resulting campaign messages ever would.

Matthew is neither a PR professional nor the average consumer of media, having pursued a brilliant career in journalism and politics. However, his arguments about the double-edged sword of hiring image-makers have a shrewd ring of truth that should sound a warning to PR practitioners and those who de­­ploy us. The wider world, the man on the Clapham omnibus, has now cottoned on to the fact that a measure of media manipulation is the norm. The words ‘spin doctor’ have passed into the vernacular and feature as commonly in pub discourse as ‘the X-factor’ and ‘lone striker’. The public, our ultimate target audience, knows that much of what it reads and sees is a heavily varnished version of the truth and discounts much of it. Spin becomes back-spin as the public sees through the smoke and mirrors.

Scepticism grows when spin doctors heave into ever more prominent view. Not only do the repeated media appearances of the Campbells, Cliffords and – most recently – Mitchells of this world show the public an open hand, but they tend ultimately to alienate the media. The media do not like their occasional puppeteers to show the public the strings. The PR who becomes the story can lose the power fully to influence. Media resentment grows as its manipulation becomes public knowledge.

Parris’s point about a man shaping his reputation by outsourcing it was brilliantly illustrated when England soccer boss Steve McClaren publicly hired Max Clifford. It immediately signalled to a wised-up world that here was a man soon to feature on the front pages of the tabloids rather than the back. Ironically, after they parted company some affection for McClaren began to surface and he even won a few matches.

Similarly, it is questionable if the constant appearances of Clarence Mitchell with the McCanns helps their case. It reminds the public that most people whose children disappear in tragic circumstances do not run large-scale media operations.

It is in no sense uncomplimentary to PR’s best practitioners that our activities are known as ‘the dark arts’. Reputations are properly outsourced. But to return to Parris’s analysis, the error lies in the conspicuous enlistment of managers whose skills should remain in the shadows.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly a senior newspaper executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.

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