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Why spin destroys the trust between those communicating and those listening

29th August 2014


Why do the Government’s best policies get such bad press? Free schools, welfare reform and deficit reduction will all help the poorest in society. Yet the Government is struggling to get its message out. Some blame supposedly biased BBC reporters and Left-wing Guardian columnists. Others just think that good news takes time to filter through.

But I blame government spin doctors. Over the past twenty years, the rest of the PR industry has professionalised. Regular training – “continuing professional development” as the industry calls it – is now the norm. Meanwhile, membership of a professional body is increasingly mandatory for good jobs in the private and charitable sectors. These PR practitioners have to follow codes of conduct that, for example, make it a disciplinary matter to lie to a journalist.

I'd argue that government press offices lack senior public relations expertise. They frequently think spin is a good idea. But spin has no legitimate role in public relations. That’s because, while it can generate a useful headline for a day or so, it destroys trust between those communicating and those listening. As Andrew Marr, the BBC presenter, explains: “Things got so bad [during Tony Blair’s premiership] that even when Blair was saying something obvious, he was disbelieved.”

Ivy Lee, the American inventor of the press release and the founder of modern public relations in the early 20th century, had a better approach. As a former New York Times journalist he knew spin would never work in the long run. Instead, he traded under the slogan “Accuracy, Authenticity and Interest”. This was not a sign of uncommercial naivety. The man was extremely well paid and was retained by the Rockefellers and the steel magnate Charles M. Schwab. Instead, his ethical position ensured that his messages were convincing.

Fraser Seitel, a heavyweight of the PR industry who, like Lee before him, has represented the Rockefeller family, says: “Ivy Lee really, really preached that the public has to be informed, and if your policies are not good and not in the public interest, you have to change the policy. And I think that this is what a lot of people don’t recognise about the practice of public relations, if you believe it as I do, that it starts with policy, it starts with performance, it starts with action … You can’t pour perfume on a skunk.”

But pouring perfume on a skunk is what government communicators try to do every day. How often do government press officers go to their bosses and say: “We’ve had a phone call from a journalist highlighting something toxic – and I think we should change what the department’s doing”? A rare occurrence, I’ll bet. Instead, they write to newspapers implying that the story is wrong – even when it is right.

This is insane. It’s time the Government put an end to such counterproductive messaging and properly trained its communications staff to show creatively and honestly what the government is achieving. And it needs to bring in more experienced professionals from the private sector, who are used to thinking about the long-term reputations of their employers.

A Department for Education spin doctor bragged in a conversation with me that his team had banned the education editor of a national newspaper from calling his department’s press office. He didn’t like the paper’s angles. But the result of this ban, as any seasoned PR practitioner would know, is that the journalist would continue to get his stories from disgruntled, leaky civil servants, but not be exposed to the Government’s ​​side of the argument. That’s not a clever strategy.

Alex Singleton is Associate Director at The Whitehouse Consultancy and author of The PR Masterclass, out now from Wiley.



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