Alastair Campbell: PR is about the public, not the media

It was a great night when Alastair Campbell, who is best known for his role as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s director of communications and strategy, came to speak at our recent course awards.

For someone perhaps better know as a master of spin – in fact he started his speech by apologising for landing us all with that descriptor – he talked a lot about strategic communication and reputation.

He emphasised how as communicators we should be concerned with contributing to the strategy of the organisations we work for, rather than focusing on good press relations. He urged us not to allow our contribution to be defined by the day to day media output. Its exactly what we talk about on our PR courses.

He talked about Nelsen Mandela and Sir Winston Churchill as people who suffered from a bad press at some point during their careers, but who went on to enjoy good reputations.

Alastair also pointed out – and this is something we communicators all too often forget in the throes of our work – that PR is about the public, not the media.

He also talked about the democratisation of media brought about by social media as a positive, seeing it as an opportunity for communicators who work strategically and can put into context what is being said to see whether it really matters.

Alastair said:  “Most leaders of most organisations, particularly those of my generation, are still fixated with what’s going on in the papers and that’s the wrong mind set. If they communicate to the papers that that’s what they’re fixating about they are giving them more power.

“At the same time social media is giving more power to communicators, brands, leaders and the news makers. That’s what I like about it. It is recalibrating that relationship in a way that’s positive.

“The genius of Facebook is the concept of the friend….People believe each other. People believe their friends.”

He explained that in his view, the  only communication that works is now authentic, strategic communication over time.  “If you think about reputation over time. If I say Rupert Murdoch. Hands up if you think he has a good reputation. If I say Richard Branson. Good reputation? Hands up.

“How’s that happened? There’s Rupert Murdoch. He controls all this ink. He controls all those airwaves and yet the public has sort of worked it out. It [his reputation] is not very good.

“Branson, he really, really thinks about his reputation and he really, really thinks about his communication and that is not a bad thing. You never hear people talk about Richard as having spin doctors. Richard Branson’s out there. It’s authentic. All his businesses hang together. I’ve done trains. I’ve done planes. I’ll do space, that fits. The whole thing hangs together brilliantly.

Alastair told those gathered at our awards reception: “That idea of thinking about reputation is really, really important and that ultimately is what your job’s about. It’s about the reputation of the people and organisations you work for and about their interface with the public. All the public is is people. It [PR] is actually just about making that contact.

“I think that if you think of yourselves as just giving good press, it’s not about that. Public relations now means every aspect of relationships with the public, through old media, new media, face to face, leaflets, words, advertising, marketing. The whole lot comes to my mind in the same space.”

Our course awards was a great night and Alastair’s words gave us all something to think about.

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