How the UK Made Fools of the Experts

A Perspective on the Brexit Campaign

By Terence Fane-Saunders

This has been a bad time for experts

As the people of Britain headed for their polling booths, the opinion polls were almost unanimous.  The Remain camp would win, and win comfortably. The financial experts in the City of London rushed to take positions reflecting their same view. Britain would remain “In”.  And in the betting markets, hard-nosed professionals were staking heart-jolting sums on what they saw as a certain outcome.

These experts all were wrong.

Quite simply, the British people lied to the opinion polls; or, at least, a large percentage did.  And it was quite understandable that they should. Throughout the Referendum campaign, the Remain camp adopted a strategy of threat and insult possibly unparalleled in the history of mainstream British political debate.  Brexit supporters were vilified, demeaned even threatened for the views they held.  They were accused of racism, of prejudice and of sheer, ill-educated stupidity if they were even tempted to ignore the tsunami of expert opinion thundering down on them daily from the Remain camp.

As the campaign reached its crescendo, one other theme developed: ageism. Polls were showing that older people were more inclined to support Brexit; the young (including those too young to vote) were strongly in the Remain camp.  Gradually an insidious argument was built. These elderly voters were too old, maybe even too senile, to understand; stuck in the past.  They were voting on a future they wouldn’t share; barely deserved the right to a say. They were upholders of outdated prejudice. They were old.

This vitriol was not just confined to the messages pumped out from campaign headquarters, it poisoned the waters of social media, and spilt out into real-life human contact. In the workplace, in people’s homes, at social events, contacts were blocked, “friends” unfriended and real friendships ended. And in all this, there was a consistent message coming from the advocates of “Remain”:  if you support Leave, you are a xenophobic, irresponsible, morally inferior, possibly senile idiot.

On the whole, most people don’t like being defined that way.  So, when asked, “Do you support Leave” (meaning, “Are you a xenophobic, irresponsible, morally inferior, senile idiot”) they were quite inclined to answer “No”, or to say they hadn’t yet made up their minds.  But in the privacy of the polling booth, they felt free to vote as they really felt – and to make fools of the opinion polls and humiliate a whole world of chattering experts.

But if the vote itself delivered a crunching, bloody nose to the experts, so too did the campaign.  With all the weight and machinery of Government at his disposal, David Cameron enlisted a stellar list of experts and leaders to deliver almost daily warnings of the dire consequences of a Brexit vote.  Even President Obama was produced in Downing Street to warn that Britain would go the “back of the queue” if it was hoping for any special trade deals following a Brexit.

And a strange thing happened.  The British public turned against the experts.  Michael Gove caught the mood: “People in this country”, he proclaimed, “have had enough of experts”.  And it appeared he was right. Certainly, the great weight of expert opinion, from the IMF and the Bank of England to the Archbishop of Canterbury, had stampeded into the anti-Brexit camp.  And in this perhaps lies the clue as to what went wrong. It was anti-Brexit, not pro-Remain. One after the other, the experts lined up to condemn Brexit.  They warned of economic and social disaster; of a cataclasm leading to a cataclysm. “Project Fear” was launched.  And to terrify any uncertain voters into final submission, Chancellor George Osborne unveiled a “punishment” budget with £30 billion of tax rises and spending cuts which he said would be immediately imposed if the country was irresponsible enough to vote Leave.

But it was a flawed, crude and ineffective strategy. Nobody has ever rallied to a banner inscribed with the words “Or Else”.

Yet the Remain campaign was unremittingly grim, threatening, negative and joyless. It had the opportunity to talk up Britain’s unique and exciting possibilities as part of Europe, but safely outside the Euro, protected by potent powers of veto, and a range of special provisions. There was so much to believe in, to hope for, to celebrate. Instead, they unleashed the black forebodings of Project Fear.  But over at the Leave camp they took a different approach.  They promised change – perhaps the most potent word in the political arsenal.  They recognised that for a great proportion of the British population, life was hard, offering little hope or pleasure. The status quo held no appeal.  Brexit offered the chance of change, a hope of something better, however ill-defined.

The Brexit camp did not have to be too specific.  They just promised better times, when the country would “take back control”.  Boris Johnson injected a sense of hope and fun: “This is like the jailer has accidentally left the door of the jail open and people can see the sunlit land beyond”.  They offered someone to blame – the faceless, unelected bureaucrats of the European Union, and they offered a rallying cry “Independence Day”.  Mostly, too, the Leave campaign were smart enough not to over-use the Immigration issue.  They knew it was working for them already.  And they understood that in areas such as the National Health Service, the role of foreign workers was recognised and welcomed across all levels of society.  So their campaign was never allowed to be just an anti-immigration bandwagon. It was about “establishing control” over immigration, keeping the immigrants we value, getting rid of the ones we don’t.

Negative PR can work, and fear can be a potent force.  But it needs subtlety and understanding of the audience.  On this occasion, there was little sign of either.  Fear, as a campaign strategy, simply didn’t work.  Partly this was because the economic disasters predicted were seen by many less affluent  voters as having little to do with them.  Their view was that, for themselves at least, things couldn’t get much worse anyway.  So they weren’t particularly alarmed.  They felt that these were threats to the banks, to big business, to the property owning middle classes, to the London elite, with their History of Art university degrees. And any pain that might be felt in those circles wouldn’t trouble them greatly.  But the prospect of change in their own circumstances offered a glimmer of hope, and that was worth voting for.

Another problem for the Remain camp was that the issue was complicated beyond the true understanding of even the most well-informed voter.   The staggeringly complex social, economic and political implications of a possible Brexit could at best be comprehended through a cloud of conjecture and uncertain consequences.  But our university-educated middle classes could never accept that any issue was beyond their intellectual grasp. So they fell hungrily upon the expert prognostications pouring out from the Remain camp, and swallowed their apocalyptic visions whole.   They now felt that they too were sufficiently expert to justify certainty of opinion, and that utter certainty coloured what became an increasingly intolerant debate.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
W.B Yeats

For the less affluent and less highly educated, there was a more limited ( and so, perhaps more realistic) attempt to address the issues.  For many, it was like the blind man and the elephant’s tail, comprehending the issue in terms of what was actually within their grasp –  their immediate and personal experience, with no sense of the greater shape of consequences beyond.  And here, unemployment, housing and immigration formed a potent mix.  Finger-wagging lectures from the IMF or dark warnings from the Bank of England would seem less part of the real world that they inhabited day to day. And they bridled at criticism from the more affluent , “educated” class, the angry, condescending tone and the passionate intensity of their newly acquired “expertise”. The temptation to tweak the nose of the Establishment is never far away with the British people..

People tend to believe what they want to believe, and evidence to the contrary can have little impact.  In fact, it can even harden conviction.  This is something we see frequently in our Crisis Management practice, and it was clearly happening here.   But when it comes to voting, people also prefer to vote for people they like, and here again, the Remain camp lost ground throughout the campaign. They were increasingly easy to dislike.

For the Leave camp, Boris Johnson sustained his bumbling, clever, rumpled, cheerful celebrity persona, with a surprising leavening of focus and self-discipline.  Michael Gove restrained the sharper edges of his personality, and came across, mostly, as a decent, courteous and clever man (at least until the Referendum was over).  Nigel Farage performed his pint-in-hand man-of-the-people act, and, when attacked quite successfully portrayed himself as the victim of the hated metropolitan establishment– “When you challenge the establishment in this country, they come after you”. The educated, southern, metropolitan elite largely responded with disdain.  But across the country as a whole the Leave team were connecting with the voters.

The Remain campaign, meanwhile, adopted the guise of a fierce school-teacher, lecturing the quailing public about the punishments to be meted out if they fell out of line.  And people didn’t like it.  More important, they began to dislike the teacher.  But the messages coming from the Remain leadership were given an additional colouring by the poisonous venom injected into the argument  on social media.  The tone adopted by much of the educated elite was the British class system at its worst – arrogant, belittling, aggressive, insulting.   As a Remain supporter myself, but with reservations, it was increasingly difficult to prevent distaste for the advocates of Remain from contaminating objective assessment of the arguments.  But across large parts of Britain, that distaste actually shaped voter intentions.

In the end, fear failed as a PR strategy.  People preferred hope, however crudely ill-defined.  Insults and aggression achieved nothing, but only alienated those who needed to be persuaded.  And a large part of the British public made fools of the experts.

A lesson in bad public relations.






What We Should Learn from Donald Trump

Donald Trump doesn’t do hand shaking outside the local church. He rarely even stays the night in any one state. Rather than the folksy meet and greets previously the staple of Primary season, Trump opts for huge rallies, a relentless focus on spectacle and an unrivalled ability to court controversy. This is the new political reality for the Republican Party, in fact for the entire American political landscape. Trump has torn up the rules of electoral trail; and now the mavens of the PR world need to reassess the strategies and techniques we had once taken for granted.

By harnessing the power of shock, Trump has forced the world media into the role of unwilling accomplices. How can they not report his words?   In an age of ‘clickbait’ and ever-decreasing attention span, Trump seemingly improvises moments of shock which bypass the intellect and attach themselves to something much more visceral. Whether he is demonising entire religions, berating foreigners or launching personal, colourful and often shockingly crude personal attacks on his opponents, he not only demands attention, he actually provides a form of entertainment. In the same way a playground fight is surrounded by a baying crowd until someone of authority steps in, so do millions of Americans tune in, click on and cheer for Donald Trump’s latest provocation. Except now there is no authority figure to step in and reprimand. Through two very deliberate choices, Trump exploits this opportunity with almost frightening professionalism. Quite simply, he has devised a communications strategy which allows him absolutely to dominate the election, at minimum cost.

His first choice: shamelessness. Trump has very deliberately chosen to be news-noisy; to say hurtful, shocking things; to cajole and bully. His Primary competitors, the very people who would normally hold this behaviour to account, have often been reluctant to provoke one of his devastating tirades. And when they have attempted to play the same game, turning on him in synchronised attack during the debates, they lose, both because they have yet to master the language of raw insult, and because their attacks simply turn any debate into the Donald Trump Hour. It’s all about the Donald.  Meanwhile, the American news media have become hooked on Trump. They turn to him for their regular ratings fix. They may despise themselves for their dirty little habit, but he makes them feel good. He delivers the ratings, and they really don’t care how grubby the packaging. Trump knows this and willingly supplies a fresh dose of high octane coverage every couple of news cycles.

Astonishingly, recent figures from Ad Age show that Trump has spent just $10 million on advertising, compared with almost $85 million by Jeb Bush. Even Marco Rubio had shelled out $49 million. But hey, there you are.  Lean PR can run circles round the bloated budgets of the ad industry! The formula is quite straightforward.  Targeted, easily-digestible content can be created for (comparative) peanuts, and disseminated on the internet. This is not new, and bypassing traditional media outlets is now an established trend. But Trump has added an extra frisson . The content he delivers is so newsworthy, so shocking, so unerringly populist, that he forces the traditional media to relay his message, and so the impact of the original clip is multiplied and multiplied again.

The second choice: positioning. Trump has identified the rising tsunami of anti-establishment sentiment, and ruthlessly exploited it, positioning himself as the angriest, most competent outsider. He has portrayed himself as the Grand Crusader against political correctness. For the past eight years Republican politicians, egged on by the media, have railed against the ‘politically correct’, in the notionally liberal world of an Obama administration. The phrase is used to demonise a Washington that is viewed as unfit for purpose. This has been a magic formula, allowing even the most offensive and shocking remarks to be celebrated as victories against the forces of the politically correct.  The message is simple: Trump is an outsider, not part of the out-of-touch Washington elite and, frankly, he says what is on his mind, even if it isn’t ‘politically correct’. This creates a hideous quagmire for both his Republican rivals and the mass media. To attack him for being politically incorrect or inexperienced is no longer an insult. In fact, it’s an accolade. He has made himself, for now at least, virtually invulnerable to charges that would bring down other candidates.

But maybe Trump understands the public better than they realise. And better than they might like. It’s a cliché on both sides of the Atlantic that “the public aren’t fools”; that there is an innate wisdom in the electorate that enables them to see past the lies, deceptions and mendacity of the political class. The Republicans currently have a petition on their website titled ‘The American People are not stupid’. Yet if the events of the past few months are anything to go by, then maybe that self-congratulatory petition is actually and evidently absurdly wrong. Trump offers very little in the way of policy, yet is the frontrunner in the party election. He reduces great issues to simplistic slogans and invests them with prejudice and bile.  Simple assertion replaces argument, evidence or thought. Counter-argument is abandoned in favour of the much more effective techniques of insult and offence.  And this, apparently, is what huge swathes of the public want. It’s how they need the great issues of our times addressed.  So, what does this say about the public? It would be easy to believe that, in reality, they are remarkably stupid, shallow, ignorant and easily manipulated, especially when the manipulator plays back to them  their own prejudice and bias as part of his pitch.  Or perhaps it is something better than that. Perhaps the public, particularly Trump’s public, are simply tired of box-ticking speeches and technocratic promises. Perhaps they see through the carefully calibrated communications strategies that attempt to cover all the bases while minimising risk. Either way it begs the question: are we in the Public Relations industry overthinking it?

Strip away one’s own feelings and we are left with this: by combining a simple message, picking the appropriate emotional level with which to deliver it, and then disseminating the content in bitesize chucks, Trump has forged a formidable PR strategy. This may all sound rather textbook, but once you factor in the personality-driven spectacle of Trump, we see that he has actually undone many of the rules of political PR. His public appearances are not crisp or manicured. His speeches are meandering. When asked tough questions about say, foreign policy, he delivers responses that are defined by what is absent, a choice example being ‘I will be so good at the military your head will spin’. Clearly this is not a pre-planned statement sourced from policy commissions, run-past consumer groups, copy approved by backers and moulded by press officers. Trump relies on gut punches of angry sentiment while promising the world. And it is exactly what his audience wants to hear. It’s human, unpolished and it is not what you hear the folks back in Washington saying.  And it’s certainly not what their PR advisers are recommending. But maybe now, those PR advisers are coming to recognise that they need to re-write their rule books.

Whatever the outcome of this campaign, we in the PR business must learn a few lessons from Trump. Clinical strategies and perfectly worded press releases are meaningless without persona. As we strive to become more professional and scientific in our approach, we run the risk of homogeneity or blandness. He has demonstrated the raw power of message amplification; he has perfected the art of the retweet. By combining an astute knowledge of his audience with the strong personality they crave, he dominates the news and demands attention.  And he has perhaps taught us worrying and distasteful lessons too. If you flavour your arguments with the prejudice and fear that is already in the hearts of your audience, you can say almost anything. They will accept and believe.  You are their man, giving voice to their prejudice and bigotry.  You and the audience will own each other.

By breaking the orthodoxy of PR, Trump has created unassailable content and delivery systems. Ultimately though, the rise and rise of Trump has proved one thing; that with something as mercurial and unpredictable as public opinion, there is no such thing as a rulebook.

Terence Fane-Saunders
March 2016

Reputation Threat


I think it's time for a little healthy paranoia.

If you are a high profile individual, or if you hold a top position in a high profile organisation, or if what you do is intrinsically interesting, then, yes, you should be paranoid. Assume you are under attack. An army of people is after your secrets. They may be sitting in a back room of a Moscow apartment; they may be lurking at a table next to you in an airport lounge, or even in that car with blacked-out windows parked discreetly outside your house. They may be anywhere. But what they have in common is that they are looking for information you don't want them to have, and they have the tools to extract it.

Of course, you may operate in an environment of meticulous care, where your commercial and business secrets are safeguarded and protected with professional skill and rigour. More and more enterprises are recognising that safeguarding confidential information has to be one of the basic fundamentals of good management. But that still leaves your personal life unguarded, and that can just as surely destroy your professional reputation.

The threats to our privacy are growing exponentially, as smart technology worms its way into every corner of our lives. There is a well-publicised report now being investigated by the Information Commissioner of LG smart TVs on sale in the UK feeding confidential information and data back to the manufacturers in Korea. Even simple household appliances seem to be morphing into sinister tools of intrusion, with reports from Russia that hidden microchips had been discovered in kettles and irons imported from China, and that these were there to pump spam data and malware into wi-fi networks, allowing confidential data then to be sent to a foreign server. Not a story you'd necessarily believe, but you wouldn't want to bet your career against the possibility, either.

Recently I took part in a presentation to a group of generals visiting from a friendly third world country. A colleague with a security background caused an uneasy ripple when he showed them how easy it was to transform their mobile phones, undetectably, into wireless microphones broadcasting everything they said, and the meetings they held, to be listened to on his own phone, wherever he happened to be.

The same colleague also showed how easily and quickly the entire contents of your phone can be downloaded, if you leave it in the wrong hands for just a few minutes. At government offices and embassies around the world, he insists on removing the battery from his phone before handing it in. “It doesn't prevent them getting at it, but it makes it more difficult”. Perhaps a reason to choose a phone with an easy-to-remove battery!

I'll leave it to others who are better qualified (and at Chelgate we work with several) to talk about the challenge to corporate confidentiality, and the ways of building better protection into your business. But the people cracking open your secrets are not just looking for commercial information. They are after your reputation, too. All the recent talk of phone hacking is really only the glimmering tip of a very large iceberg.  Hugh Grant may never have his phone hacked again. But his privacy will still be far from secure.

Law firms are coming at the same problem from the legal perspective, and ending up in much the same place. Keith Schilling explained to me over breakfast recently how Schillings had acquired an IT security company, and you can see how that makes sense. You want to keep your clients' privacy safe, if you can. But if it's compromised, you need to know how and by whom if you are going to be able to put it right.

For PR professionals working in Reputation Management, Reputation Protection has become an increasingly central part of the job. A vital part of this is helping our clients to protect their privacy, spotting when it has been compromised, and moving quickly to counter the damage. Sometimes a vital part of the response will be a legal one, and PR firms increasingly need to work closely with their colleagues in the law. But at other times the legal route may not be either the best or the quickest way to contain the threat. But this will depend on a bunch of different factors – scale, motive, accuracy and source being just a few. A PR firm with Reputation Protection skills will have a range of tactics it can deploy, both online and offline, usually faster than any legal process can be put in place. But often, the most effective response will be a broad spectrum one, using IT, PR and legal responses to re-establish control.

Of course, prevention is better than cure, and the professional PR practitioner needs to have at least a basic understanding of good privacy practice – sufficient at least to conduct an initial review of client vulnerabilities. They may be as secure as the Bank of England when they in the office, but what do they do when they are at home, or travelling the world. Just how secure is their wireless network at home? Do they use public networks when they travel? When they settle down for the evening in that charming Kuala Lumpur hotel, and they connect to the hotel network, just how private are they? Or, if you are Chancellor of a great European nation, should you really be spending hours every day texting on your insecure personal phone?

Of course, even if your personal privacy is absolutely watertight, that may not be enough, which was another point Keith Schilling made as I wrestled with my morning croissant: “Who knows what photos are being posted and stories told by the VIP's children to all their friends on Facebook?”

In fact, these days, anyone holding down a high profile job should have a proper Privacy Audit to check on potential vulnerabilities. It's hard to manage reputation if your every minor indiscretion, embarrassing faux pas or domestic issue is potentially out there on public view. At Chelgate we know enough to offer general guidelines, and to know whether you need one. But this really requires very expert capabilities which we don't pretend to have. But we know people who do, and that audit, and the strategies springing from it, need to form a cornerstone in any high sensitivity Reputation Protection programme.

Terence Fane-Saunders

PR in the Shadows

We keep a pretty low profile at Chelgate. Much of our work is quite confidential, and we say little about most of our assignments. But what we would never do is to represent a client or a cause to the public, or to any third party, without making it clear exactly whom we are representing. PR people will remember the fuss last year when Burson-Marsteller were secretly hired by Facebook to run an anonymous campaign against Google.

But now we seem have run up against a similar situation in a planning battle we are fighting in Yorkshire, and this suggests a style of PR that our profession really has to leave behind.

We are retained by commercial/property interests to fight plans to plonk a giant superstore on the edge of the beautiful little market town of Malton, on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. This is one fight where my business interests and my heart are happily intertwined. I spent precious years in and around Malton watching my children grow up. Harm it at your peril!

The people of Malton are overwhelmingly against the plan (evidenced by market research) and the town council oppose it too. They know that it will suck the lifeblood out of the wonderful gaggle of little shops in the town. But the District council, who stand to benefit from a £5 million payment from the developer, have supported the plan. So much for localism! Selina Scott wrote two wonderful articles for the Telegraph and the Daily Mail warning of this threat to that lovely little town. Many others rallied to the cause.

Thanks to a successful legal challenge, the initial planning application (backed by the district council) was thrown out. But last month, the developer kicked off a new community consultation as a prelude to the submission of a new planning application. Hearts sank across Malton. Back to the barricades!

And then, coincidentally (?), last month also, a new campaign popped up, notionally promoting Malton: ‘All4Malton’, with Facebook, Twitter and a website too. At first glance, it simply looked like a supportive campaign to boost the town, with items about the Malton Food Festival, and the town's links to Charles Dickens. But it only takes a few moments to realise that half the items it carries are actually designed to promote the threatened development. Even items not specifically about the development are clearly designed to serve it. So, there are repeated references to parking problems in Malton, with readers being encouraged to send in their ‘Malton parking horror stories’. And guess what? Parking is one of the key claimed selling points being pushed by the developers. Another is the fact that the site will include a petrol station – so of course there's a box encouraging the public to tweet for lower petrol prices.

Our principal client in this assignment, the Fitzwilliam Estate, who own a great deal of property in Malton, and are desperately worried about this threat to the little town, is attacked and smeared (‘the Estate doing their usual scaremongering’), but nowhere, in any of all this aggressive propaganda is there any acknowledgement that it's not just an impartial initiative to promote Malton. We are not told who is behind it, who is publishing it, who is paying for it. It's an attack from the shadows.

I've no problem with a good, healthy publicity battle. In fact, I rather enjoy them, and of course we fight lots of them. But creepy little anonymous campaigns, hiding their true purpose and concealing the identities of the shadowy people who are pulling the strings, represent the squalid end of our profession. They probably also tell you a lot about the developer too.

At least Burson-Marsteller, which is a fundamentally decent and professional outfit, apologised, and recognised that this wasn't the way for professionals to behave. I have a feeling that whoever is behind this little enterprise will be much more reluctant.

Of course, I may be entirely wrong. This may all be the work of people who simply love Malton, and are entranced with the idea of a superstore on the edge of town; so entranced that they go to these great lengths to support their passion. In which case I am happy to apologise to all concerned. But I'm peering out of my Tanner Street window right now, looking out at our little park, and I can't see any sign of a single flying pig.

Terence Fane-Saunders


The PR of terror

It’s too early to know whether the Boston Marathon bombing was the work of “organised” terror, or the deranged act of an isolated individual, but either way, acts of terror need to be seen for what they are : obscene and warped expressions of “black” PR. I prefer to call this anti-PR.

Usually, the action itself is a good step or two away from the actual purpose. We are not witnessing the destruction of a munitions factory, for example, or the interruption of strategic and military capabilities. The Twin Towers, in themselves, posed no actual threat to the people who destroyed them, and we can safely assume that the perpetrator of Monday’s malevolence had no particular aversion to long-distance running. Quite simply, these were acts of “anti-PR” – grotesque and evil stunts , designed to communicate particular messages. And in the mad , negative-image world of anti-PR, much of the criteria and thinking were chillingly familiar to most PR professionals : planning, timing, platform, media visibility, impact. We can speculate on the message intended through the Boston bombing, and at some point it will probably become apparent. But of this I’m sure: the message, not the act, was the purpose here. In the same way, 9/11 might be seen as an attempt to demonstrate American vulnerability, to shatter occidental hubris, to show that American cities could easily be exposed to destruction, or to deliver a dozen other possible messages. But it was obviously never simply an attack on two skyscrapers.

For those responsible for countering an act of terror, it is essential to understand and counter the purpose of the terrorist act, and that purpose, nearly always, will be anti-PR : the delivery of a message, the creation of “understanding”, a shift in attitudes and perceptions (maybe, with intended panic) , a grab for headlines and recognition. This is horribly difficult, because, whilst the event will often convey many of its messages with almost immediate and brutal force, the processes of response are not naturally structured that way.

The nine stages of atrocity go this way:

First, the event. The bare act imposes itself first on those it immediately impacts, then on the news media. “A bomb has ripped through…..”, “Twelve students have been shot dead….”
Second, the human story. Just as our thoughts and hearts turn immediately to victims and survivors, so the media lenses and journalist pen-portraits follow the same path. The eight year old boy killed, his sister horribly injured just moments after their father crossed the finishing line. The media search inanely for emotional connection: “How did it feel when…..?” Victims are immediately sanctified and celebrated .

Third, hunt the demon. There is a human need and a media hunger to identify the perpetrator, to blame, condemn, demonise. If you have saints, you must have demons. And this need rushes ahead of any need to comprehend. If, walking to work, someone hits you on the back of the head, you wince, and then you turn to see who did it. Only after that do you wonder why. And the same applies to acts of public terror. Encouragingly, bitter and hard-won experience is perhaps beginning to modify this response among both media and public officials. And more positively, there seems to have been no kneejerk rush to pin guilt upon a perpetrator: in Britain we began to learn this after the release of the Guildford Four and tragically after the 7/7 London bombings; in America, it has been learned more recently. We can be thankful for this. Any attempt to bait and provoke by these attacks has been undermined by this mature response – though the silence of the Boston perpetrator(s) suggests that baiting was probably not their intent, since they’ve provided nobody to retaliate disproportionately against.

Fourth, anger and grief. As the scale and the details of the atrocity become evident, so anger and grief become powerful driving forces, with massive media and political potency. It is here that a managed response can be most difficult and yet most important. The perpetrator has probably committed this act with very specific, carefully calibrated objectives, and aspects of anger and grief will probably be high on the list of intended consequences. But the media, the public and the politicians and officials who represent them often seem blind to the fact that their reactions may be exactly the response intended .

Fifth, defiance. Judged well, this can be a powerful and valuable response. Churchill was a master: “Hitler and his Nazi gang have sown the wind. Let them reap the whirlwind.” (This in the same speech as his famous “Some chicken. Some neck!” Well-pitched defiance can boost morale, stiffen resolve and undermine the enemy. But one of the first rules of conflict propaganda is never to make statements that your audience disbelieves. Do so and you immediately devalue every other statement you make. Perhaps the most colourful example was “Baghdad Bob” (Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf), Saddham Hussein’s Information Minister, who reduced his role to buffoonery and farce, not merely by lying, but by lying so obviously.
Quite often, though, misjudged defiance is not intended to deceive. It’s simply a naive venting, with no understanding of the processes of propaganda. In the case of the Boston Marathon, the UK Sports Minister’s statement this week that he is “absolutely confident here that we can keep the (London Marathon) event safe and secure” created a complete discontinuity between popular knowledge of reality and the narrative he was attempting to construct. How can he possibly be absolutely confident? Of course, the event may well turn out to be “safe and secure”, but the certainty is false. Responses of this sort are of no use: public officials don’t reassure but alienate their audience and sabotage their own purpose when they say the incredible.

Sixth, self-cannibalism. This is more a characteristic of democracies , with a free press, than of restrictive societies and dictatorships. Even though the perpetrator may be clearly identified and universally vilified, there is a hunger (whether driven by media or political imperatives) to find associated blame in the victim society itself. Inadequate policing, poor intelligence, budget cuts, political “dithering”, liberal laws have all been cited in the aftermath of recent atrocities. And here may lie one of the perpetrators’ purposes, seeing a community turn on itself.

Seventh, tokenism. Here, the event itself can become a kind of shorthand, a symbol. Much will depend on who constructs and commands the shaping of that symbol, and how effectively they do so. 9/11 become an emblem and expression of a nation’s defiance, of innocence maimed by an act of Evil; in Britain, 7/7 rather less so, in part, perhaps because of unease over the police killing (almost, execution) of innocent suspect, Jean Charles de Menezes. But tokenism , and the battle to shape and define lasting symbols is central to the war between PR and anti-PR.

Eighth, mythology. This is tokenism carved in stone. The Hindenberg disaster was not an act of terror. But the same principles apply. The lasting mythology, supported by dramatic , horrendous, uncompromising imagery, turned the entire world against a form of transportion which until then had been full of purpose and possibility. Terrorists work to shape that lasting mythology. Those working against them have to counter that purpose. But too often this defensive process is accidental, incidental, without shape or strategy.

But if the Hindenberg imagery killed an industry, the potential power of visual imagery in the 21st century is a million times greater. Social networks, and universal camera phones mean that an act of terror in Boston can be filling television and computer screens in Tokyo within minutes. It’s been widely reported that when al Qaeda or other groups in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria bomb troops or public places, very often the attack will be filmed and uploaded to the web. Arabic- and Pashto-language websites exist to distribute them – since YouTube operates a censor – to an audience of mainly young people interested in watching the footage. And footage is in demand in the West, too.

For both audiences – the supportive and the critical – the attack footage is important because of what it represents subjectively. The objective content of the attack is obviously important, as it provides the basis from which a subjective meaning can grow: the attack has to happen before we can begin interpret its symbols. But it’s the subjective content that gives the video (or, sometimes, the image) its irresistible gravitational pull.

A public act of terror – transmitted to us so viscerally and digestibly in visual form – takes on meanings for each viewer that extend beyond the attack itself. And what we can be sure of, today, is that most of the groups launching these attacks understand the importance of these multiple, subjective meanings: they understand their capacity to unify, to provoke (perhaps to provoke over-reaction), to intimidate and to inspire. Those who understand the subtlety of their macabre work also understand the risks, including the risk of over-reaching and thereby appalling their own supportive or wavering constituencies.

To return to the Boston Marathon, there are a few puzzling characteristics. Firstly, the timing. Because the attacks came so late after the elite racers had finished, there were fewer media cameras trained on the finish line area, so the impact was lessened, both in terms of the visual record, and of course in that the “celebrity athletes” had long left the scene, along with most of the media. Images of post-attack suffering and reactions have been plentiful – but images of the attacks themselves have been sparse (though much repeated)
Secondly, the target is puzzling. Analysts will be asking what makes a running race into a target: what can it symbolise to the intended victims, and what does it symbolise to those who might be hoped to support the attack? It’s a non-military target; it is not a high-profile commercial target; the race is not an icon of national unity. Like the 7/7 attacks in London, it may aim to expose the susceptibility of quotidian life to disruption, and to create a discomfort and fear for one’s own safety that extends into the everyday routines – into commuting, or into regular sporting events. But that purpose is far from clear, and divorced from any strategic narrative, lacks purpose in itself. Interestingly, too, there appears to have been little in the way of authoritative claims of “credit” from established and recognised groups, and the perpetrators do not appear to have attempted to position their act within any kind of coherent (albeit twisted) narrative. To me, most of the signs point towards a disorganised, unstructured action by an unbalanced individual, or a small number of individuals, with little strategy or organised purpose other than the expression of some malformed, personal need.

If the attacks themselves are all about symbolism and meaning, how do the authorities reply? They will respond with symbolism of their own, in good time. But first, using verbal or written statements, they will attempt to meet the symbolism of the attack with the framing, explanatory power of a narrative. But will this be done with proper, professional understanding of the world of warped symbolism and reverse reality which anti-PR can create?

Narrative, or strategic narrative, is the story that gives events their coherence. For those experiencing the attack on the street, the narrative is very limited: it is one of raw experience, and meaningless danger, something that’s been well-described as “pure event”. The narratives for the rest of us follow later on: we build them for ourselves first, and as we catch up on news coverage we merge our own narrative with the wider story being told through the press and media. Through these narratives we contest the meanings of attacks and of their images, and with them we attempt to influence others’ views of the events.

Narratives are the structures we use to understand attacks, and a leader or public figure will always attempt to influence those structures in the wake of an attack like this.
But there are limits to how far we can persuade. One of the lessons of the First World War was that you can’t spin narratives that are wildly different from reality: a narrative of heroism and honourable struggle can’t be maintained when audiences know the reality of carnage, of the “hell where youth and laughter go”. That war brought on a rebirth of irony, as it offered onlookers a way to understand the vast gap between ugly truth and censored narrative.

By contrast, the reactions of the Boston Mayor and of President Obama have been cautious, though the President was more forward in promising justice, and eventual knowledge of who was behind the attacks. Obama also hesitated to label the event a terrorist attack – though he didn’t designate it as criminality, either, as the FBI has. President Obama has interpreted the attacks as a chance for unity in Boston, a chance to “pull together, take care of each other, and move forward as one proud city” – a rather stoical approach.

As the attackers deliver the events, images and videos – carrying a slightly different significance for each onlooker – it’s the responder’s immediate challenge to deliver a framework for interpretation. Their own images and events may follow – tanks absurdly parks outside Heathrow in 2003 or anti-air artillery on Westminster Bridge in 1938, for example. But those images can be and should be managed within a strategy of carefully managed narrative.

Framing these narratives is difficult: the task is not simply crisis management. It is PR as a weapon of war. It demands true understanding of the techniques and implications of black, grey and white propaganda. It pitches PR against anti-PR in a strange world of constructed realities. Some Presidents and Prime Ministers may have their in-house experts. Mayors don’t tend to (though this one has done a fairly good job), and corporations, public bodies and individuals almost never do. This PR isn’t the daily bread sort: it’s very rarely needed, but when it is needed, it has to be delivered fast and expertly.

Terence Fane-Saunders and Frankie Evans

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

Why people stick around

Tony Hunn, who masterminds all things technological at Chelgate, has just completed his 10th year at Chelgate. Amazingly, more than half the Chelgate team have now been with the firm for a decade or more. In an industry notorious for its flea-like job hopping, it’s truly extraordinary to find such a high level of “stickability”
So, what’s happening? Why on earth do they stay? It’s certainly nothing to do with the Chairman, who’s notably curmudgeonly, demanding and difficult.
In fact, I think I know why. It’s because of the jobs they are actually asked to do at Chelgate. When someone goes into PR, they usually do so because they want to do good work; to be an outstanding public relations professional. But the depressing truth is that in all too many PR firms – perhaps even most – the priority has shifted. It’s no longer about doing outstanding work for the client. It’s about maximising profit margins for the firm. So, the “product” becomes the chargeable hour, not the delivery of client service. The time sheet culture takes over, and people begin to forget why they are there in the first place.
Of course any half decent PR executive wants to work for a successful and prosperous employer. And they celebrate their firm’s successes and rue its setbacks. But the reason they went into PR in the first place was not to make their employers rich. It was to be the best PR professionals they could be. The success of their firm may be the welcome result and measure of their first class work. But it was never the primary objective.
When PR firms forget this; when they put profits ahead of professionalism; when they suffocate and dishearten their team by switching focus from client service to business profits, then it’s little surprise that their frustrated and disillusioned staff members develop itchy feet.
At Chelgate, every member of the team knows that their first priority, always, must be the quality of our professional service to clients. We believe that if we get that right, the rest (including the profits!) will follow. And because this is what they went into PR to do, I think that just might be why Chelgate people stick around. Here in this firm, whatever the other privations and hardships, they are at least able to be the professionals they want to be.

Class wars and PR smears

Gordon Brown’s “playing fields of Eton” swipe at David Cameron has generated almost febrile excitement at the prospect of a class warfare strategy for the election. But generally overlooked in the same exchange was his other attempted smear: that Cameron speaks with “the voice of a modern public relations man” .
The depressing fact is that the PM knows his pantheon of prejudice. He knows that PR people – worse, “modern” PR people, are right up there alongside estate agents, used car salesmen, old Etonians and, these days of course, bankers. Though a politician sneering at a public relations man does rather bring pots and kettles rattling to mind.
But Brown knows his beans. He knows that , for a large part of his audience, public relations is a dark art, dishonest, deceptive, manipulative, and too clever by half.
Of course they are wrong. But nobody is saying so.
It’s time that PR people – real PR people, that is, not propagandists, “spinners” , press agents and publicists – stood up for our profession, and explained what we do.
Real PR is a force for good. It benefits society, business and the public in general. Real PR is dedicated to enhancing relationships between organisations and their publics. Real PR understands that good relationships require good communications. This means listening as well as talking, because if you don’t listen , you’re certainly not going to be able to communicate. It also means communicating with honesty and integrity, because trust has to lie at the heart of any good relationship, and if you mislead and consistently lie to the other party in your relationship – whether you’re a business or an individual – you’ll destroy any trust and poison your relationship. Good PR recognises that, and acts accordingly.
Good PR also recognises that what business does, how it behaves, is central to its public relations. If an organisation behaves dishonestly, irresponsibly, insensitively or with gross greed in its relationships with any of its key publics, it will undermine the very relationships it should be nourishing. So PR at the highest level has to involve not just corporate communications but corporate behaviour too. Responsible, decent, generous and honourable behaviour. And the “voice of the modern public relations man” should be a welcome voice, because he understands what it takes to build and sustain a relationship.
But if truthful, honest communications and honourable, responsible behaviour are what modern public relations is about, then perhaps it becomes easier to understand why politicians like Gordon Brown seem to be so out of sympathy with the profession.
Terence Fane-Saunders