Why press officers must serve the media as well as their masters

It has been a grilling week for me. First, I was interviewed by Jonathan Dimbleby - in BBC Radio 4’s The Candidate series - for the new job of communications strategist, alias spin doctor, to the Queen. As listeners yesterday (Thursday) will have recognised, this demonstrated the perils of going for a post you couldn’t care less whether you got and have previously dismissed in this journal as unnecessary.

It has been a grilling week for me. First, I was interviewed by

Jonathan Dimbleby - in BBC Radio 4’s The Candidate series - for the new

job of communications strategist, alias spin doctor, to the Queen. As

listeners yesterday (Thursday) will have recognised, this demonstrated

the perils of going for a post you couldn’t care less whether you got

and have previously dismissed in this journal as unnecessary.



Then the Parliamentary Select Committee on Public Administration called

me as a witness on what is happening to the Government Information

Service in the crass, blundering hands of this media-obsessed

Government. I can’t give you my impressions until next week because I

had to write this column before my appearance. But you’ve already got

the drift.



Common to both grillings was the media management issue of

favouritism.



The text book position of the professional press officer is to treat all

alike in the dissemination of raw news and never to tip off a rival when

an individual journalist comes to you with an exclusive or original

wheeze.



How you help individuals build on raw news or an idea may differ;

otherwise the principle of fair treatment rules. In other words, if a

press officer is adequately to serve his boss, he must recognise that

his responsibilities do not begin and end with him. Not to put too fine

a point on it, he has to serve the media, too.



This concept increasingly attracts a certain ridicule. I sniff a whiff

of incredulity among my seminar audiences when I advance it.



Indeed, you don’t have to linger long in PR circles to hear people

boasting about their latest coup produced by selective leaking as though

it were the thing to do. And, of course, if you are a part-time press

officer with no intention of making it your career, the ruthless use of

the media may well seem to be just what the spin doctor ordered.



Why bother about media sensitivities? Go for the short-term hit and to

hell with the long-term needs of yourself as a press officer, of media

management as a profession and of your organisation’s reputation. This

is what makes civil service administrators drafted in as press

secretaries a potential liability.



The trouble with Labour governments is that they never seem to learn

from their mistakes. Harold Wilson’s government fell out with the media

partly because of the privileged access to the Prime Minister of a bunch

of senior members of the Lobby called ’the White Commonwealth’. And what

has Alastair Campbell’s Sun-worshipping achieved this past week? Why,

it’s alienated the Labour-loving Mirror by, among other things, sharing

such Mirror ideas as a Clinton appeal to Northern Ireland voters with

the Sun.



Mark my words, unprincipled opportunism will be the death of this

Government.



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