What do you think are the chances of Peter Mandelson attracting a
blockbuster expose of his life and works, especially since he hasn’t
sued Punch over its ’revelations’ about his trip to Rio? If you think
it’s a racing cert, let’s try something more difficult: when do you
think this epic will appear? In five or ten years? Or, more likely, when
it becomes more fashionable to treat New Labour like dirt rather than
the Tories? If so, when do you think that will be?
These are questions which Mr Mandelson must be mulling over as someone,
somewhere, surely chronicles his every move, decision and utterance
against the fateful day when he becomes fair game. After all, if Robert
Harris, author of Enigma and Archangel, can pen an hilariously
inaccurate and conspiracy-laden biography of me, how can they ignore Mr
Mandelson - unless they work for the BBC?
I mention this to illustrate one of the most intractable of PR problems:
handling risk. It is particularly topical since sometime next year we
shall be able to export British beef, assuming that anybody abroad will
buy it, and even, perhaps, consume large, celebratory chunks of beef on
the bone over Christmas.
The BSE scare - for that is all it has ever been to human health - has
devastated an industry even though each of us has infinitely greater
chance of being struck by lightning than contracting CJD, the so-called
human variant of mad cow disease.
What is clearer now than it was during the similarly ridiculous scares
over Chernobyl lamb, listeria cheese and salmonella eggs is that the
reputations and fortunes of PR firms’ clients are in no way related to
Indeed, if the population generally understood risk, we might rapidly
solve the soaring problem of illegitimacy. A table compiled from
American insurance company statistics on life expectancy, causes of
death and risk by Bernard L Cohen and I-Sing Lee, in the department of
physics and astronomy at Pittsburgh University, shows that batchelordom
reduces average life expectancy by well over nine years and spinsterhood
by more than four.
By comparison, the average loss of life expectancy from drinking coffee
is nearly double that for all catastrophes combined, but it still adds
up to only six days. As for both nuclear reactor accidents and radiation
from the nuclear industry, the loss from each is only half an hour, even
assuming that all US electricity is nuclear generated. And yet, in an
age preoccupied with global warming, nuclear power’s development in the
democratic world is stalled by public fear, even though it produces no
The PR industry may not be able to help Mr Mandelson much. But it would
serve its clients better if it spent less time on buffing the shine on
its image and a lot more on educating the public about risk.