Amid this week’s latest spies-on-the-run allegations,MI5’s drive to
become more accountable is a step in the right direction, dispelling the
myths surrounding the service, says Bronwen Andrews, head of PR, Saatchi
The myths surrounding MI5 are such a strong feature of its profile that
dispelling them requires a strategy worthy of the most experienced
spymaster.The publication of a glossy brochure and the launch of an MI5
web site is a significant move. By attempting to sweep away the secrecy
surrounding its operations, the Security Service stands a chance of
clearing up a few misconceptions.
As a PR initiative, the idea of creating a spirit of openness is a step
in the right direction. An open and honest approach is a powerful
communications tool. The move can also be seen as a strategic one in
terms of intelligence gathering and even recruitment, as it normalises
the image of the spymasters, which in turn will help to attract people
with greater experience of life into the organisation. MI5 has taken a
bold step out of the shadows of the past 90 years. However, moving into
the limelight has its own problems.
If your organisation is held in suspicion by the public, in many ways
refuting all allegations at once reminds people of just how many there
have been. By answering a list of the most damaging allegations in one
fell swoop (including assassination attempts, overthrowing governments
and surveillance of pressure groups), MI5 risks making that complete
dossier of allegations topical again.
Analysis of the Daily Mail’s coverage is telling: it reported MI5’s
statements accurately, but in the form of a catalogue, listing the
organisation’s most high profile myths-from illegal telephone tapping to
the unauthorised surveillance of the Royal family. Coverage across the
other national press was also largely accurate yet the headlines focused
on the still high number of files held on people and organisations.
Setting the facts straight thus prompted renewed concern.
A less ambiguous communication strategy is the Home Office’s use of Jack
Straw to present the campaign. Having been the target of MI5
investigation in the past, he provides a credible case history as the
man to whom the service is now answerable. Also powerful is the
information given in the brochure and the web site on the service’s
resourcing and staffing - helping to build a realistic picture of the
organisation and debunking the James Bond image once and for all.
Openness is a continuous and long-term process, not a one off event.
It remains to be seen whether MI5 can sustain the campaign in the
context of a resurgence in conspiracy theories as we approach the
anniversary of Princess Diana’s death - and this week’s ’Spies on the