Peter Holt: The perils of when PR meets politics

Private sector PR types from time to time get their share of silly season fun when the issue they're handling suddenly attracts a blunt political connotation. For those of us working in the public sector, it's a way of life.

Peter Holt: Be prepared to tell truth to power
Peter Holt: Be prepared to tell truth to power

Even with all the practice we get though, that’s not to say that we always get it right.

We’ve had stark reminders of this in a fortnight when the good press that the Government was hoping for from its budget was overtaken by the granny tax, petrol panic-buying, postage stamp fury, and even ‘pasty-gate’.

(I for one though would like to see an end to the laziness of journalism that thinks it’s clever to stick ‘gate’ on the end of a word as a way of indicating that the general public should think that the offending party should be summarily impeached.)

There’s learning to be drawn from these multiple misfortunes though. These lessons aren’t new of course, but they’re still worth re-stating.

First off – rehearse the key lines with your talking head before letting them stand in front of a microphone or camera.

As PR professionals, we at most get to influence the choice of key decision makers that we offer up for public comment.  They’re the bosses – the ones who put their heads above the parapet and ran for office, after all. 

We always want our spokespeople to talk from their own experience, so as to avoid sounding fake, but if their own life circumstances are going to have their choice of words make them sound like they are out of touch, they need our help.

Secondly – inconsistent lines are a recipe for disaster. It’s often a fine judgment which way to go in handling an issue.

I’d always though much rather a clear decision, with everyone sticking to it.  Mixed messages make us all look like amateurs.

Lastly – be prepared to tell truth to power. Last week I sat in a closed-doors council cabinet briefing session, and after five of the eight councillors present had spoken to whole-heartedly endorse a particular course of action, I got my turn.  What I really wanted to say was that the initiative they were considering adopting was utterly unsellable. 

By telling them that I was using the words of ‘Yes Minister’ in describing the idea as ‘bold’, ‘principled’ and ‘brave’, I was able to make my point clearly, and they stopped at the brink for a rethink. 

I’m not sure I made too many friends with my fellow official who’d drafted the paper in question, but as comms professionals, we’re perhaps more used than others to operating close to that line in the sand between policy and politics.

In this case, I had spotted that a good policy was profoundly bad politics.  It’s not even that I didn’t want them to take the decision (even I think it really is a good policy), it was that I wanted them to understand that however hard I worked to sell it, it would play very badly.  The politics is their business.

After a pause on the brink, I suspect they may go on and take this big stride forward regardless, and when they do, I’ll be out there making the case for the initiative regardless of my behind-closed-doors advice.

That’s why after the Government’s ‘worst week on record’ (another hackneyed phrase we all hate) I have nothing but respect for colleagues in Government communications.


Peter Holt is communication director at Bristol City Council, and is the newly-installed chaired of the CIPR Local Public Services group.


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