How Malcolm Tucker and Max Clifford committed the greatest PR fraud of our time

What do Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster, David Mellor’s Chelsea strip, The Thick of It and Edina Monsoon have in common? Well, all these and more have contributed to PR miseducation. Today I’m at Leeds Trinity’s Journalism and Media Week 2018 to chat all things fact and fiction and demonstrate what we see about public relations has little in common with what the role entails today. 

You’d never know from popular culture that the definition of public relations, as set out by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), is the:

“Planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”

Stereotypes abound, from the glamorous and sexy depictions of PR in Absolutely Fabulous and Sex and the City, through to the manipulative, incompetent and more than faintly ridiculous characters in TV programmes such as Twenty Twelve, Absolute Power and The Thick of It.

It’s hard to find examples where public relations advisers are shown as honest and able to speak truth to power, except perhaps in West Wing and Designated Survivor.

Check out the examples and clips within my deck here:

It’s a big problem for the public relations industry, which is constantly criticised for having a reputation problem. Maybe one of the issues isn’t in fact of its own making.

The Max Clifford effect

Public relations has struggled to be taken seriously as a strategic management function since the days of the late and now discredited publicist Max Clifford.

The man behind the claims that Freddie Star Ate My Hamster and David Mellor MP made love in a Chelsea strip was regularly touted by the media as a PR guru, despite his approach of making things up in return for column inches being the anthesis of PR professionals working within an industry code.

Part of the problem was that there were few other strong industry spokespeople to challenge his status.

Equally, doing and saying the right thing doesn’t always prove quite as appealing with the mass media, who aren’t necessarily interested in publicity being just only one of many tools in the public relations toolkit, and why knowledge of that matters.

Misperceptions rule ok

The widespread misinformation available about what the job entails continues to be a big part of the issue.

A rudimentary google search shows that Wikipedia also equates public relations to publicity.

Pick up any book featuring a character who works in PR and it’s pretty likely they’ll be based upon the stereotypical image of an always on, champagne-drinking event obsessive, probably with a name like Chanel (as recently seen in The Bodyguard).

Even Alexa Chung has been sharing her views – in her Future of Fashion programme, Alexa opined that that:

“PR is a highly competitive industry where only those with the improbable combination of quick wit, organisational skills and charm will survive.”

Clearly I have all three, but she certainly misses out the need for strategic, leadership and ethic skills alongside business acumen and a heap of personal resilience.

Academic research recognises the problem

As would be expected the problem has already been identified by those in academia.

In Experiencing Public Relations, edited by Elizabeth Bridgen and Dejan Verčič, Kate Fitch writes that:

“Public relations work in popular culture tends to be presented in line with particular tropes”.

In the same book, Philip Young hits the nail on the head:

“Just as public relations influences culture, it is also the case that culture holds up a mirror and reflects an image of public relations. And, as those who spend much time gazing into mirrors discover, the reflected image can be distorted and is often embarrassing.”

Embarrassing is exactly right.

Fiction versus fact

Take one look at the stereotypes out there and it’s very easy to juxtapose fact with fiction and see how different public relations actually is to how it’s perceived.

The industry needs a way of calling out what is clearly bullshit.

Consider the Riz Test created by Sadia Habib and named after actor Riz Ahmed who spoke in parliament on diversity and representation, which challenges how Muslims are portrayed on screen.

A programme is deemed to be Islamaphobic if a Muslim character is:

•       Talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of terrorism

•       Presented as irrationally angry

•       Presented at superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern

•       Presented as a threat to a Western way of life

•       Presented as misogynistic (if male) or oppressed by her male counterparts (if female)

It’s a smart and much needed way of dealing with the pernicious problem societal ill that is Islamophobia.

Introducing the Hall Test

I’d argue we need a PR version to improve the standing of our profession.

The Hall Test is failed if:

•       Public relations is depicted as comic / fluffy / overly glamorous / champagne and event driven

•       Public relations is used a shorthand for propaganda or publicity

•       The PR character is duplicitous and underhand

•       A public relations professional is shown trying to keep news in the public interest out of the media

•       The sole basis of a PR job is media relations, event management or underhand lobbying

There’s a quick reference bullshit bingo card within the deck for those who’d like to play along at home.

Why it’s important

Bad language and humour aside, this is something the world of public relations needs to deal with.

PR is still in the main unrecognised as a strategic management function which plays a significant role in organisational success, despite being a profession increasing in importance as consumers seek brands aligned with their values, and one which is rising up the corporate agenda.

Reputation is what concerns the C-Suite and that’s the business we deal in. How we are portrayed impacts our standing in society and the work we secure.

Seventy years ago, the rationale for founding what was then the IPR was to achieve mutual understanding and good relations.

As envisioned by the Institute’s local government founders, good PR today places social purpose and accountable leadership at the heart of organisational strategies to drive company value over the long-term.

PR truths

Having shown how public relations is often misrepresented, it’s only right to also show what the job, at a strategic level, is more likely to encompass today.

Today’s professionals focus on the following:

•       Use of public discourse and customer insight to set the organisational agenda

•       Consideration of environmental, social and governance matters as a path to sustainable growth

•       Agreement of the why and how with rationale

•       Meaningful stakeholder dialogue to achieve buy in

•       Positions on key issues such as extremism; fake news and cyberbullying (one of the greatest threats to free speech)

•       Crisis planning

•       CEO activism, capitalising on rising trust in CEOs (see Edelman Trust Barometer)

•       Wider industry partnerships with Google, Facebook, ASA, Internet Advertising Bureau etc in the fight against fake news.

It’s a far cry from how we’re represented in popular culture.

Max Clifford, Malcolm Tucker and their friends really have successfully committed the biggest PR fraud of our time.

To improve the standing of public relations we need it to be portrayed accurately as a strategic management function which contributes to organisational success.

Until the work we do is recognised and reflected appropriately, PR’s reputation problem will continue to be an issue.

Grab your bullshit bingo cards – it’s down to us to educate people otherwise.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Andy Thornley via CC2.0.

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