Rarely has Alastair Campbell treated the media and the British
public to a more blatant example of the aggressive news management which
has become his trade mark - or such a clear illustration of the
difference between the business of ’spin’ and that of public relations,
as most practitioners understand it - than with his ’gagging’ of
outspoken critic of the NHS, Lord Winston.
None of the participants in this sorry tale have behaved particularly
well, but the problem is that while Campbell’s tactics attract ever
closer media scrutiny, there is a danger that the reputation of the PR
industry will once again get caught in the cross-fire.
As a TV celebrity and Labour peer, Winston displayed a remarkable lack
of media-savvy when faced with a seasoned journalist and a tape
His indiscreet identification of the location and manner of the
forthcoming birth of Blair jnr was gauche, but there is many a corporate
spokesperson who has been too loquacious only to regret it when his
comments appear in print. Campbell may have successfully diverted
attention from the real issue at stake by persuading him to ’recant’ his
indiscretion, however it is only a temporary respite.
The issue of NHS funding is one PR challenge that this Government, or
any other, would find it hard to news manage their way out of. This is
not a debate that can be averted. As any crisis management specialist
knows, there comes a time when one has to face the cameras, and provide
a credible response to criticisms.
In circumstances such as these it is important to recognise what public
relations is and is not. It is not a magic panacea. It will not reduce
waiting lists or the cost of health service. For all the flurry of
publicity surrounding new concepts such as NHS Direct, with the cost of
acceptable care seemingly growing faster than the health budget, there
are fundamental problems to address. A PR campaign can only be as good
as the product you have to work with.