Registering Interest

I’ve tended to shy away from calling the Chelgate political relations team “lobbyists”. I know what springs to most people’s minds when they hear the word : shady, rat-like creatures scuttling through the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall, wheedling, inveigling, whispering and beguiling as they corrupt the processes of power on behalf of their paymasters. Well, that seems to be what the St Paul’s squatters think in any case.
But I’m not planning to discuss how lobbyists came to have such a contaminated reputation, nor even whether it’s entirely unjustified. But I am going to argue that good, professional political relations consultants are actually a benefit to society.

Business people don’t have all the answers, but they do have some. They understand the realities of the marketplace. They know about production and distribution. They learn how to manage. They have to control costs and drive sales. And if they can’t manage their finances, they go to the wall.

But in many ways this nation is a bigger business than any of them. And you’d think that the people entrusted with the task of managing the enterprise and balancing the books would have all the experience and expertise this demanding task takes. But the truth is that only 19% of all current MPs have a background in business, with a further 15% coming from the financial world. So, I suppose we should count ourselves lucky – given their inexperience and lack of qualifications – that we don’t find ourselves plunged into a financial crisis, with a runaway deficit, minimal growth and unsustainable levels of public spending.

Good government listens to the business community. And it draws upon the expertise and experience it finds there. And when it does so, we all benefit. But business needs to talk to Government too. It knows that Government decisions, its regulation, legislation and fiscal policies, will all shape the landscape for business in this country. And it’s right and fair that that business should present its arguments, make its case, offer its advice about matters of concern to it. But this needs to be done properly. There must be rules of engagement, codes of behaviour, restraints and balances. Without that, you have a jungle, where the richest, the most ruthless and and least moral enjoy levels of access and influence which wholly undermine the principles of good government. Anyone who works in international business can name a long list of countries where this is the case.

But not the UK. Because here we have a well-established set of procedures and practices setting out the ground rules for the way business communicates with Government. And we also have a well-established government relations profession – some might call them lobbyists – who understand those rules, and who work to ensure that the voice of business is heard, but in a way that is ethical, honest and transparent. Or should be.

So, I do welcome steps to tighten up the rules governing the lobbying profession. But at the same time I worry that this might become one of those “stampede” causes which end up rushing blindly, too far and too fast, straight over the Cliff of Lost Common Sense. In particular, we need to differentiate between advice and representation. When my firm represents a client – whether to Government, the media or any third party, we do so openly and honestly. Our interests are clear, and so is our client identity. But when another client comes to us for advice, not representation, then I can see no good grounds for demanding that this should be a matter for public disclosure. We are, we should remember, confidential advisers, and that confidentiality is a professional attribute, not a cloak of shame.

In an earlier blog, at the time of the Burson-Marsteller / Facebook “Black PR” story, I wrote this:
“ At Chelgate we have a number of clients whom we have never disclosed. These clients come to us in confidence. We work with them, we advise them, we develop strategies on their behalf, and all of this, I believe, is a matter between those clients and ourselves. We don’t reveal their identities, and we don’t disclose the nature of our work. But nor do we publicly represent them.
On the other hand, when we act for a client, when we argue their case to the media, or solicit the support of politicians; or when, for example, we engage with an NGO, a local council or an academic institution on their behalf, in fact, whenever we act as the go-between for our client with any third party, then of course we indicate who we are acting for. Any other approach would be furtive and creepy. And that’s not how professional PR should be.”

Public affairs and government relations advisors should be able to operate as professionals. They should be able to advise in confidence, and their clients should know that not just the content of the discussion, but even the fact that it has taken place, will remain confidential if that’s their wish. This is no business of anybody else. Indeed , for some clients, even the fact that they are seeking advice from a particular consultant could be a matter of sensitivity if made public. But when that consultant moves beyond consultancy, and begins to represent , that is when we need true transparency. We have to be quite clear about who is acting in the interests of whom. And that’s when we should have a compulsory register of lobbyists and their clients – but reflecting representation, not turning private consultation into a matter of public speculation.

The signs, though, are that the lobbying / public affairs profession in this country has difficulty differentiating between the two functions. And the concept of confidentiality seems ready for sacrifice on the altar of transparency. Maybe the profession is cowed by recent scandals. Maybe it has trouble distinguishing between confidentiality, secrecy and deceit. But the (in many ways admirable) Association of Professional Political Consultants demands that “members must disclose the names of all their clients and consultants in the APPC register”, stamping firmly on the thought that anyone might be able to go to an APPC member for discreet and confidential advice, without finding the fact promptly disclosed in the Register. The UK Public Affairs Council, on the other hand, seems unwilling or unable to distinguish between representation and consultation, blithely conflating the two in its decree that “lobbyists are those who, in a professional capacity, work to influence or advise (my italics) those who wish to influence the institutions of government in the UK”

In advocacy and representation, we need transparency. But this firm at least will never deny clients the opportunity for private, confidential consultation and advice without finding their name listed in some register of lobbyists’ clients.

Terence Fane-Saunders

Murder most public

Family, gather round the sick bed. Chaps, hunt down your black ties. We’re in the presence of Dead Law Walking.
The preposterous and increasingly pointless Super Injunction is gasping its last breaths. Pretty soon, we’ll hear the death rattle in its throat. It’s over. It has been murdered, publicly and horribly.
And like some Agatha Christie novel, the victim is so full of stab wounds, it’s hard to know just who struck the fatal blow.
The assault from the Internet has been quite enough to kill it where it stood. Where’s the point in a Super Injunction if Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere tear the privacy veil to tatters? Keeping a story out of the traditional media no longer provides any kind of lasting protection for the publicity-shy public figure. I could float a story on the Internet right now which would reach a million people before it saw a word printed in the press. And before any lawyer could be rushed to the baricades.
Mr Justice Tugendhat may have warned that anyone who uses the Internet to breach a court order still leaves themselves open to a claim for damages. But the good judge is whistling in the wind. He doesn’t understand the Internet. Too many people will pay no attention. Too many will simply not believe him. And when a fierce firm of ferocious lawyers finally tracks down Ernest Hardbottle of 12 the Larches, to duff (in legal parlance) him up for breaching the Court Order, they will find that his only seizable assets are Mrs Hardbottle and the family cat. Meanwhile, Ernest’s “leak” will be carried on by a thousand other voices across the net. Will they hunt them all down, too?
But it may have been Lib Dem MP John Hemming who struck the mortal blow when in March of this year, he used Parliamentary privilege to name Sir Fred Goodwin in open defiance of the super injunction binding us all to secrecy. Maybe it has been bleeding to death ever since .
But if John Hemming’s was not the death blow, the wounded beast could never have survived the battering of the past few days when Lord (”put-em-in-the-stocks-and”) Stoneham, asking a Question on behalf of Lord Oakeshott, completely destroyed any shreds of anonymity that Sir Fred might still have hoped to wrap around himself.
Yes, of course, the dying patient may stagger on a year or two. Three at the most. But who will bother to use it, who will bother to go to the cost and the effort of seeking out a super-injunction, when they know that it simply won’t work ; worse, when they know that their attempt to gag the press, and to gag us all will in itself add wings to the story? If it’s not dead today, the super-injunction is surely mortally wounded.
Yes, of course there’s a place for legal action in matters of privacy. But the Super Injunction is not the answer. And part of the answer will lie outside the legal process. It will lie in the way you work with the press. In fact (and I know many won’t believe this), most journalists are not monsters. They don’t like being lied to, and they don’t like being gagged. But if you are straight with them, then usually they are straight with you (and of course, any good PR operator has his or her little list of “Serpents not to be Trusted”. We know who they are!). Declare war on the Press and , in the end, nearly always, you lose. Much better to work with them, and at least have a chance to shape the story, and to have your version of events heard. And, in fact, a decent journalist is quite capable of being a decent human being. I can think of several occasions where journalists have held back from inflicting further pain, because to do so would be unnecessary and would add nothing to the story. And because journalists are human beings too.
Well, most of them.
And I know they will give the Super Injunction a decent funeral, and a riotous wake.
Terence Fane-Saunders

Furtive and Creepy

What on earth has happened to Burson-Marsteller?

Talking about other PR firms is generally something I prefer to avoid. But today I’m making an exception.

In my own CV, the time I spent as Chairman and Chief Executive of B-M in the UK is something I look back on with mixed feelings. I like to think that at Chelgate we do a number of things differently and, I hope, rather better. But I have always regarded that firm as an important, serious minded and professional business . I think too that it deserves great credit for its pioneering work, pushing back the boundaries of our profession and helping to position public relations as a priority at the highest levels of management strategy. And, like many others, I have also always regarded Harold Burson as an outstanding leader of the profession – a man of decency, high intelligence and rock solid ethics.

So it’s with sour distaste that I read the breaking news of B-M’s central role in the sleazy Facebook ”black PR” secrecy scandal. Quite simply, this is not the way that B-M would have operated in the days when I knew it well, and I am sure that it is not an approach which Harold Burson would have condoned.

But let’s be clear, I’m not condemning negative PR. I wouldn’t like to see it becoming a day-to-day part of our professional service, but there are times when it can have its place. The global campaign Chelgate ran against the Mugabe administration in Zimbabwe is something I look back on with pride, and I believe was fully, resoundingly justified.

But the “Save Zimbabwe” campaign was not conducted from the shadows. People knew who we were and what we were about. In fact, given the death threats I received on an almost weekly basis, we might have had more reason than many to keep our role obscure. But how can you accuse others of dishonesty and falsehood if you are not prepared to be open and truthful yourself?

And nor do I feel that refusal to disclose a client’s identity is, in itself, reprehensible. At Chelgate we have a number of clients whom we have never disclosed. These clients come to us in confidence. We work with them, we advise them, we develop strategies on their behalf, and all of this, I believe, is a matter between those clients and ourselves. We don’t reveal their identities, and we don’t disclose the nature of our work. But nor do we publicly represent them.

On the other hand, when we act for a client, when we argue their case to the media, or solicit the support of politicians; or when, for example, we engage with an NGO, a local council or an academic institution on their behalf, in fact, whenever we act as the go-between for our client with any third party, then of course we indicate who we are acting for. Any other approach would be furtive and creepy. And that’s not howe professional PR should be.

It has been suggested that at least some of the information that B-M was hawking to its contacts was not merely secretly sourced, but also actually false and misleading. I have no idea if this is true. For all I know, that’s negative PR from the other side. Once the paranoia box is open, its difficult to close it again. But that’s not really the point here. In this grubby little attempt to seed negative stories without disclosing their source, they were denying the media (and that means the public, and that means you and me) the opportunity to assess the value of those stories. If you don’t know the source, you can’t judge motive. In this case, source and motive were absolutely central to the story; so central, I would suggest, that the story itself becomes incomplete and misleading if that information is withheld.

Throughout its history, the PR profession has struggled with the damage caused by its grubbier practitioners – the PR hacks, the press agents, the fly-by-night corner shops who live by false promises, operating in the shadows, spinning half truths or downright falsehoods. But that struggle , generally, has been a successful one. And it is firms like Burson-Marsteller who deserve the credit for establishing the profession as an ethical, valuable and often admirable part of the management process. They have led by example. But if senior B-M professionals are now seen to be operating like shadowy, backstreet spin merchants, you have to wonder about the continuing value of that example.

I expect – I hope – that this will be seen to be an aberration; that the Burson-Marsteller management will both condemn this action by some of their staff, and apologise without reserve for what they have done. I expect too that they will explain clearly and publicly what they are doing to ensure that this kind of thing can never happen again. If they do not; if they are in any way half-hearted in their apology and their recognition of fault, then it’s a black day for the PR profession. Because Burson-Marsteller leads by example.

Terence Fane-Saunders

In Confidence

I have just been reading a blog by PR exec George Snell. He was giving the inside story on an assignment a few years back, when he was asked to set up interviews for Saif al-Islam, Colonel Gadaffi’s son, to talk about the release of the Bulgarian nurses who had been held in Libya on charges that they had infected Libyan children with HIV.
An interesting little blog, but it made me feel very uneasy. A large part of our business in Chelgate is devoted to issues and crisis management and I do believe that in this area especially, certain codes have to apply. If professional, high level strategic PR is to be taken seriously, and if it is to play its proper role in shaping and managing sensitive and troubling situations, then clients should expect rigorous standards of confidentiality from their advisers. There should be no conceivable risk that a few months (or even years) later, some PR gun-for-hire will emerge from the shadows with his (or her) “inside story” .
Many of our clients ask us to sign Non Disclosure Agreements, and that’s fine with us. But it shouldn’t need an NDA . If you claim to be a professional in this business, then you should act like one. Nobody forces you to work for the client in the first place. And if , once you are working for them, you decide that they are unacceptable for any reason, then you give notice. But you don’t take their money, and then betray their confidence.
Some years ago I left a firm where I had worked on a number of very sensitive crises. A few months after I left, one of my former team appeared in the media, plastered all over a national magazine, talking about his crisis management skills. When I read his accounts of assignments that we had worked on together – assignments that I had always considered to be confidential and private, I felt , literally, physically sick. I felt, somehow, that I had been party to a betrayal of trust.
Of course, there may be times when overwhelming moral or legal imperatives make some degree of disclosure necessary. And then you must do what you have to do. But if strategic PR is to be treated as a serious and important discipline, then it’s time its practitioners behaved like grown-up professionals.

PR and the end of the Monarchy

So, as the “King’s Speech” rumbles towards the Academy Awards, bursting with well-deserved Oscar nominations, here in Britain we’re also dusting off our party gear in preparation for the Royal Wedding. And this has set me thinking about the monarchy, and how it’s coming to an end.
Let me say straight away that I quite like having a Royal Family. It’s a bit like old age. You complain about it until you start thinking about the alternative. Then you feel that cold lurch of horror. Oh God, King Dave. Or Emperor Ed. So, yes, you can line me up on the Royalists’ side.
The sad fact, though, is that we’re destroying an institution that most of us would prefer to retain. And what is destroying it is a fundamentally flawed PR vision. The media, the public and even the Royal family themselves have all now decided that our Royal Family are little more than a rare breed of uber celebrity, and that’s how, increasingly , they are coming to be treated.
You may remember the old Latin proverb: “Whom the gods would destroy, first they feature in Hello Magazine”. Those Romans knew their fagioli. Personal publicity can be a heady and intoxicating brew. It seems it’s no longer enough for a celebrity musician or footballer or film star to be known for their music, their football skills, or their performances on the silver screen. Now we must listen to their solutions for world hunger, admire their taste in interior decoration, and absorb their views on breast feeding, the environment and naval destroyers. Really, it’s simple vanity: firstly, to believe that that their narrow professional talents somehow validate them as people, intellectuals and arbiters of taste and secondly to believe that the more people know about them, the more the public are exposed to the “real me”, the more we’ll love them. Not many of us are wholly loveable when the “real me” is truly revealed. Mother Teresa perhaps. And Ernest Uthershaw from Bootle. But that’s probably about it. Certainly not many footballers, actors or recording stars.
The press of course, for their part, won’t rest until they have sucked every hidden corner of the celebrities’ lives dry – their love lives, their religious convictions, their family problems, their battles with the bathroom scales or the bottle of bourbon under the bed. We probably know more about the private lives and intimate secrets of some public figures than we know about our own friends and neighbours; even perhaps, our own families. And the more we learn, and the more information we swallow, the more we digest, the more bitter the reflux.
And this is the mistake we are all making with the Royal Family. Monarchy is not about people; not real, flesh and blood, living, thinking, breathing people. It’s a pageant, a pretence, a performance in which performers and audience contract together to suspend disbelief. Occasionally, we the audience are allowed onto the stage to play our bit parts. When we bow or curtsey before a member of the Royal Family, we know that we are performing a charade. The person standing before us is no better than any other normal, flawed member of the human race. They are not more intelligent, more generous, more noble in spirit. They are not braver, wiser, stronger or more perfectly formed than the next man or woman on the number 19 bus.
Or, at any rate, they are not necessarily so. Yes, over the centuries, there must have been wise, brave and beautiful kings and queens. There will also have been clowns, cowards and incompetents. Just like the rest of us, then. But this doesn’t matter. Or, at least, it shouldn’t.
We all know the truth. Of course we do. Monarchy is an act, a tableau, a representation, a play. And, as in any theatre, there is a contract between the performers and their audience. We pretend it’s real. As Juliet reaches out her hand to Romeo, what we see is that innocent girl child, doomed by fate and the tender desperation of her first great love. We do not see a 24 year old actress with two kids, a footballer boyfriend, a cocaine habit and a holiday home in Marbella. That’s the only way it can work. We accept the role as the reality. If we allow it to be coloured by all we know of the actor playing the part then the performance is doomed from the outset.
And this, really, is why our monarchy is doomed. In the 19th century, when an englishman in some far corner of the empire raised his glass to “The Queen”, he really knew nothing about the dumpy little lady to whose health he was drinking. He was drinking to the role. To the Queen. And that was a role which commanded unqualified veneration.
But now there seems to have been a shift, an insidious, dangerous rethinking. More and more it seems that the PR strategy guiding the Royal Family is geared to promoting their attractions as individuals, as “personalities” whose exceptional qualities somehow justify the palaces and the pomp in which we swaddle them. Now, I happen to think that Prince William seems an excellent young man, and his fiance has barely put a foot wrong. I also think there’s a great deal to admire about Prince Charles, and I’d have Camilla on my dinner party list any time. But the moment we begin to justify the whole edifice of the monarchy on the basis of the qualities of the actual people playing the roles, we have sown the seeds of its destruction. I doubt if the man or woman exists whose personal qualities justify the veneration which we choose to bestow on our Royal Family. But what we venerate is the role and the symbol, not the individual playing the role.
If monarchy in this country depended on the qualities of the individuals occupying the throne, we would have been a republic for hundreds of years.
But now, all parties to the contract are beginning to forget the rules of this theatre. The “Royals” are beginning to twitch the curtain aside like children at a school play. “Look, here’s the real me. Here I am. Here’s what I think. Here’s what I eat. Here’s how I like to play”. You can really trace this back to the seismic shift in PR strategy that took place as long ago as 1969 when the BBC were invited to make their celebrated “fly on the wall” documentary, “Royal Family”. Here was Prince Philip frying sausages (”Look, aren’t we normal? Just like you”). There was the Queen sharing her insight with Richard Nixon that “world problems are so complex, aren’t they now?”
The fact that the documentary was so cringingly deferential probably made it all the more dangerous, because the dangers were not so evident. You could imagine the Family looking at each other after the first screening: “Well, I think we came out of that pretty well, don’t you?” What they failed to see was that they had started the process . They had shifted the focus from the roles they played to the individuals playing them them. Of course there was not an immediate collapse in public regard. In fact, on a short-term basis, quite the reverse. But the long-term rot had begun.
And then Princess Diana arrived on the scene. The personification of royalty as celebrity. And the media of course raged into a feeding frenzy of excitement. Here was everything they wanted: royalty, glamour, charisma, spawning gossip, tumbling into indiscretion, disintegrating into tragedy. And the public loved it. This was soap opera beyond anything they had ever known. And the taste for this quickly became an addiction. Now they demand that the Royal Family should be “more like Diana”. When a Royal Wedding is announced, the young couple today must do a celebrity interview, because that’s what Diana did. They must talk of “love” and “feelings” because the public now demand emoting royals . And if the supply is inadequate, they will turn to Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter to provide synthetic substitutes (But what a great film, eh?).
So, imagine you are losing yourself in the passion and tragedy of an opera. La Boheme perhaps. And now imagine that the person in the next seat to you begins to whisper in your ear: ”That soprano. Huh ! Right little tramp, that girl. And Rodolfo. He’s no better. Drunk during rehearsals”. Any chance of enjoying the performance would vanish straight away. But that’s exactly what the British press are doing. They are whispering in our ears: gossip, innuendo, rumour and speculation. And we allow it. In fact we welcome it. And in this we sow the seeds of the destruction of our system of monarchy, because no performance can indefinitely survive this kind of attention.
Yet we demand more and more, like a child devouring chocolate until it falls back, sick and nauseated. For every intimate detail we devour, for every little story about tupperware on the Queen’s breakfast table, there is a corresponding tiny chip of erosion into the regard we feel for the institution. Yet, the PR advice, probably, is ”Show you’re human. Show compassion. Let your feelings show. Let people see you’re real”. It all sounds very right. Very modern. Very market-friendly. But, actually, it’s entirely wrong, because the construct that is our monarchy can only remain robust and respected if it is impersonal, public and magnificent. The intimacy of private lives has no place in the tableau.
Is there hope? I think, sadly, that it is almost certainly too late. The trend is probably too far advanced now, too inevitable. The only possible hope would be for the Royal Family and their advisers to recognise, right now, that the PR strategy of these past 40 years has been a terrible, fundamental mistake, and to re-shape their future activities on the strict understanding that their importance as members of the Royal Family lies in the role they play. The fewer intimate details we know about them and their private lives, the greater the chance of success in the performance of their public roles. Perhaps the greatest hope lies in the record of the Queen herself. Despite the embarrassing mistake of that fly-on-the wall documentary, her entire life has been built around the meticulous performance of her public role, and the preservation of an almost impenetrable wall of discretion around her private life. She understands the contract between herself and her people. She performs her role, and her head is never one of those peeping round the stage curtain.
The public may want more. The media certainly will, and will rage at any reduction in their “royalty fix”. But ( however counter-intuitive this may sound) good PR does not always mean giving the public what they want. And sometimes, in PR, less is more. And less is what the Royal Family needs more of, if it is to survive. Less focus on individuals. Less intimate information. Less personality PR.
Terence Fane-Saunders

In drink my friend

One blog reader has just responded with this application for a trainee position at Chelgate. I’m sorry, John, but after careful consideration we have decided that we are unable to offer you a position here. But I’m happy to be in drink your friend.
I’m John. I’m reading this locale from 3 year and I decide to communicate with something from me. I’m follower and I haven’t job. I search it everywere. Pattern I find a unripe website with function ofert. I look over it and i send meny app as a replacement for a m‚tier from my dream. I foresee i come up with It in next time. If you advised abot paraphernalia project with a view trainee prefer send me info. Thanks very much and be in drink my friend.

A little application but no confederation

At Chelgate, like most PR firms, we receive a great number of job applications, whether from people looking for internships and work experience, or from others who are keen to take their first steps in a full time career.
It has been very interesting, and a little disheartening, though, to note the real recent decline in the quality of written applications. Sometimes it’s merely a matter of the quality of English. At Chelgate we do, from time to time, take on people whose first language is not English. But they really have to be able to demonstrate that they can function to professional communications standards in this language. The vast majority, judging by their applications, simply cannot.
But more worrying is the decline in the quality of applications from native English speakers. I think I blame e-mail and texts. A new culture seems to have developed which discards care and disdains accuracy. So, applications arrive at Chelgate, rendered almost indecipherable by weirdly random (or entirely missing) punctuation, and riddled throughout with spelling errors, typos and careless mistakes. Very frequently we receive “cut and paste” applications, explaining the applicant’s particular regard for our firm, where they have forgotten to change the name of the company for which they have such high regard. It may seem harsh, but these people don’t even make it to an interview, no matter how well qualified and intelligent they are. My view is that if they are this casual in their communication with us, I cannot expect them to be any more meticulous in their dealings with, or on behalf of our clients. And that’s not acceptable here.
Sometimes we receive applications so appalling that they go into a little file of “treasures”. This week we received one which combined an almost surreal assault on the English language with the kind of careless mistakes which have nothing to do with language skills, and everything to do with character. Here it is (with only personal details removed).
Dear Mr Fane-Saunders,
The work of public relation was when I start to work in this flied, was a men’s world.
Each role that I step into was because as Marilyn Monroe state “I don’t mind living in a man’s world as long as I can be a woman in it.”
In our day, P.R job criteria of are often mixed with communication, press officer or bad marketing.
I have worked long enough as a freelance to now turn toward a reputable firm for full time employment.
After looking at your firm, I just call to inquire about sending a CV and a cover letter.
Kate, a smiley lady over the phone, gave me her email.
I would appreciate any feedback you might have with the regard to my application and will be please to meet with you for further information.
Thank you for your time and confederation.
Yours sincerely
Terence Fane-Saunders