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Don't panic! (The Guardian)

by + Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2001 at 12:34 PM

"The power of public opinion in war gives governments the moral authority to go ahead and carry out acts that could be seen as atrocious." "It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury" so said a Labour Party 'spin doctor' on using a really big news stories, like S11, to provide cover for a press release you hope no one will notice. Some thought this practice to be questionable.

Don't panic!

Monday October 15, 2001

The Guardian

There could be no starker wake-up call to spin doctors the world

over than Labour adviser Jo Moore standing accused of

attempting to bury bad news "under 6,500 bodies" by the relative

of a twin towers victim: it's not business as usual when there is

a war on. Moore's crude September 11 email ("It is now a very

good day to get out anything we want to bury") provoked outrage

among the public, politicians and the public relations industry.

Her tactics fuelled the image of PR advisers as insensitive,

manipulative charlatans and led to intense media scrutiny of

transport secretary Stephen Byers' PR dealings that, in turn,

uncovered more damaging stories. But the debacle raises the

question of how media relations should be handled in these

emotionally charged times.

While only the most naive would be shocked that political

advisers and corporate press offices manipulate news

distribution, Moore revealed a level of unthinking cynicism

hitherto unimagined by the vast majority of people. If the validity

of trying to "bury" news is questionable, in times of crisis it

becomes even more dubious, according to Charles

Stewart-Smith, a partner at communications consultancy Luther

Pendragon.

"Moore's advice is crass and insensitive and, ultimately, the

wrong advice. Using events to bury news will be found out at a

later date when it will appear even more crass and insensitive,"

says Stewart-Smith, who was editor of ITN's News at Ten during

the Gulf war.

British Airways is among the companies accused of using

September 11 as an excuse for poor performance reports and to

justify job cuts. But as the impact of the war and economic

recession spreads from the airlines to other industries, the

markets may not be so forgiving.

But with the world facing a lengthy war, there will be a desire,

from the press and the public, to return the news agenda to

something nearer normality.

Colin Byrne, chief executive of PR consultancy Weber

Shandwick Worldwide, is a former deputy PR director at

Millbank and continues to advise Labour in a personal capacity.

He sounds a note of caution: "There must be an acceptance

that in times of war, particularly in a long drawn out affair, people

still have other concerns, such as their jobs and their

investments. But there is a great need to balance 'business as

usual' with respect for what's happening at home and abroad.

There is a continuing need for sensitive language, right down to

metaphors and slang. Things that sound natural as they roll off

the tongue don't always look great in cold print," he says.

And for the ultimate in careful presentation and image

management during the war, look no further than Tony Blair.

"The tone and message of leaders is absolutely imperative. Tony

Blair looks and sounds very statesmanlike - gone are the casual

clothes in favour of regal purple ties. He looks very troubled and

stares into the middle distance, which means other leaders end

up looking at him. The power of that imagery in war is

incredible," says John Mahony, chief executive of Edelman

London, who has managed the reputation of countries and

political leaders during conflicts.

And control of the 24-hour news agenda is crucial, according to

Mahony: "The power of public opinion in war gives governments

the moral authority to go ahead and carry out acts that could be

seen as atrocious."

Margaret Thatcher's long-term advisor, Lord (Tim) Bell, who

helped nurture her Iron Lady image during the Falklands war,

argues that 24-hour news has created a sea-change in

communications: "Twenty-four-hour news has seen politicians

cynically exploit the war and use it as an opportunity to build

their reputations, and the media is assessing it on that basis.

The day after the World Trade Centre attacks, the media

assessed how Bush was dealing with it in terms of his image.

"And the more communications advisers there are in senior

positions - like Alastair Campbell in the war cabinet - the more it

means it's no surprise that we are seeing more

communications," he observes.

He is cynical about the responses from some companies in the

wake of the US terrorist attacks, but says some feel "forced by

political correctness" to issue over-sentimental statements.

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