The strategy of spin

In Communicate, Dubai, Journalism, Marketing, Published journalism on November 22, 2010 at 11:26 pm

Sultan of spin Alastair Campbell was in Dubai last month for the PR congress

Originally published in Communicate, December 2007

One PR recently shared the refreshing confidence with Communicate that the reason she went into the business was that, “Whatever I do, it won’t harm anyone.” This is not true for all practitioners of the dark arts, though, and Alastair Campbell, described by one UK tabloid as “the most powerful man in Britain,” is – some would have it – proof that a well-spun story can be a lethal weapon.

Campbell, who – as Tony Blair’s director of communications – brought the concept of PR as spin to the public’s eye, came to Dubai for the first time last month. The man credited with coining the title “Queen of Hearts” for Princess Diana, and who has set more political agendas than most of us have had press-conference canapés, was the headline act at the four-day PR Congress.

At a journalists’ roundtable, with a notably lackluster attendance (probably more because of the 9am-on-a-Friday start time than as a protest at Campbell’s alleged war criminality for persuading Blair to invade Iraq), he explains that effective PR is all about strategy. “Strategy is like having a blank whiteboard,” he says. “It starts blank and you try to fill it with what you want.”

“There will be baggage that will be there before you got there,” he continues, somewhat confusingly. “When I talk about baggage, I’m talking about stuff [from your brand’s history] that you don’t necessarily want lying around in the picture.

“The strategy becomes everything you do and everything you say,” he continues, gently sliding back into his whiteboard analogy. “You’re sort of trying to land dots on [the board] that – over time – people are going to connect with.”

The roundtable lasts an impressive 40 minutes before turning to sugar-coated bickering about Campbell’s baggage from the war in Iraq and the “dodgy dossier” the UK government used to justify it.

From a strategic PR standpoint, Campbell says, practitioners need to look beyond column inches. It’s long-term planning, he says, that is the key to effective PR.

It may sound like an egg-sucking course for grandmothers, but there were clearly at least a few attendees of the congress who had yet to get past the “remove egg from packaging and rinse” stage in their development.

Witness the delegate – working on the client side for a local construction company – who asked during a day-two panel discussion how she could have got better coverage for a safety award her company received.

“The best way I thought to get coverage for this was to organize a press conference. I did organize a press conference on a very large scale but the media turnout wasn’t very good. So immediately after that I sent out my press release to approximately 50 to 60 companies, but only three companies actually published the information.

“But two or three days after that, I sent out an advert. And that was actually published in the first couple of pages of four or five big dailies,” she continued. “I want to know where I went wrong.”

Perhaps next year’s congress should include a seminar on the difference between paid advertisements and editorial coverage.

The question, though, highlighted the need to implement strategic PR instead of knee-jerk press pestering.

Younger and less experienced practitioners, a category we pray for the sake of the industry that the questioner fell into, could learn from Campbell that there is more to successful public relations than merely carpet bombing journos with press releases. Or paying people to feature your client in their publication.

Hopefully at least some of his dots landed on the whiteboard of the regional PR industry, and our media relations pros can learn to strategically spin a bit better themselves.


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