Monday October 15, 2001
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
"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.