PUBLIC RELATIONS: Toeing the line of truth in spinworld - Mary Cowlett asks how ’creative’ PRs are prepared to be with the truth to sell a story

So, were they or weren’t they? Or rather, was it or wasn’t it? Last November, the nation spent three weeks gripped by the ’Ginger and Geri’ affair. The celebrity couple were pictured together in the early hours leaving Chris Evans’ flat, and Geri Halliwell even put in an appearance on Evans’ Virgin Radio breakfast show.

So, were they or weren’t they? Or rather, was it or wasn’t it? Last

November, the nation spent three weeks gripped by the ’Ginger and Geri’

affair. The celebrity couple were pictured together in the early hours

leaving Chris Evans’ flat, and Geri Halliwell even put in an appearance

on Evans’ Virgin Radio breakfast show.



But after the initial media splash, rumours of a publicity stunt started

to overshadow coverage of the loving couple and the finger was pointed

at Matthew Freud.



His company, Freud Communications, ’couldn’t possibly comment’ on the

truth or otherwise of such rumours and it is unlikely that we will ever

know the real story.



If the whole affair was a blatant exercise to boost the asking price for

Evans’ Ginger Productions and secure Geri a number one single, it can be

judged as a success in part.



However, some have criticised the visibility of Matthew Freud in the

whole episode and others feel that, as brands, the central protagonists

have suffered.



The PR technique of generating press coverage by overstating the truth

to journalists is fraught with dangers, and Oliver Wheeler, director of

Freud Communications, is the first to highlight that, as a survival

strategy, it rarely works. ’You don’t get away with lying for long,’ he

says. ’Our clients, such as Pepsi, Elida Faberge and BT, spend a great

deal of time and money building their reputations with consumers and we

simply can’t risk that being damaged by telling lies.’



Instead, Wheeler identifies the PR’s skills at dealing with the media as

a true understanding of what makes a story and what does not.



’We look at what a client wants and what messages they wish to get

across and then we try to communicate those in the most persuasive

ways,’ he says. And with the many potent partnerships his agency has

promoted between Pepsi and youth pop icons - most recently Robbie

Williams - it is clear that Freud likes to be creative, rather than

manipulative, in maximising media impact.



While it comes as no surprise to discover that very few PR people ever

admit to lying to the media, there is a general feeling that there is a

thin, albeit well-guarded, line between fabricating fibs and generating

spin. And the guiding principle is to ensure that there is no risk of

anybody being conned or hurt.



’Anything a PR does should always be based on truth, but if you are

going to megaspin something, you have to make sure it is harmless fun,’

says Robert Phillips, a founding partner of Jackie Cooper PR.



As an example, he cites the airship Virgin floated across London in

September, with the legend ’BA can’t get it up’ emblazoned on it, when

the BA London Eye lay stranded across the Thames. Styled in Virgin

livery, the stunt attracted extensive media coverage in the national

press.



There is little doubt that celebrity PR is a different animal to

consumer PR. The public’s expectation of the rich and famous in the

media is that they tend to misbehave and what is set in print should be

taken with a pinch of salt. ’There’s not really any credibility at stake

with celebrities, as we all know that they get up to pranks,’ says Tariq

Khwaja, managing director of August.One Communications. ’However, the

media should be guardians of the truth, and as a matter of principle,

lying is ethically and professionally wrong,’ he adds.



Despite their somewhat dubious public reputation, this is a view shared

by most print journalists. But in the cut-throat world of entertainment

journalism, everybody is trying to stay one step ahead in the game.



’Celebrity stories are a difficult one, because you don’t want to get

left behind - there is always a chance that if you don’t run it, then

somebody else will,’ says Jon Barnsley, editor of ’The Goss The Biz’ in

the News of of the World. But he clarifies his position by adding that

’lying is always a very unfortunate path to go down, as ultimately it’s

cheating the public’.



But publicist Kizzi Nkwocha, who recently helped Lisa Jensen grab the

headlines with her kiss-and-tells on Gazza and Ruud Gullit, thinks

otherwise.



’The client wants to be rich or famous, the newspaper gets a story it

knows it can sell and the public is entertained for six minutes on the

way to work. It’s a win-win-win situation,’ he says.



But being caught distorting the truth can be a disaster for the

credibility of all concerned, from the client and its brand through to

the agency and the journalist, but sometimes stories seem so bizarre

that even if they are true, reputations can be at stake.



In November, newspapers all over the world carried articles that the

latest toy craze, Alien Egg - which contains a small, foetus-like

creature - was so realistic it was causing major scares. The most

extreme case was at Buckhurst Hill in Essex, where the train station was

closed and the emergency services called in when a cleaner mistook an

abandoned toy for a human foetus.



The episode became so out of hand that Martin Grossman, managing

director of H Grossman, the Glasgow-based company which makes the toy,

was forced to make a public statement refuting any similarity between

his ’neon-green and metallic grey aliens with massive ears’ and human

babies. But the amount of column inches this incident received left some

wondering whether it was a deliberate attempt to push Alien Egg sales in

the run-up to Christmas.



It is this emphasis on gaining volume, rather than quality, of coverage

from PR that leaves a bad taste with many. John Rivett, director of Hill

& Knowlton’s youth and consumer group, says that sensationalising facts

to gain a media splash is not responsible brand management.



’Spin is not something you can predict, and misleading the public can be

potentially exploitative and painful,’ he says. ’But we do have to be

proactive with the press and spot opportunities for brands and create

good media angles,’ he adds.



With the amount of research and forward planning that goes into a PR

strategy, it is hard to justify any exercise that strays off the

campaign line, but that doesn’t rule out innovative and topical PR

stunts.



Last July, Birds Eye Wall’s cashed in on the heat of summer by creating

a media debate about ice-cream vans ditching their traditional jingles

in favour of more up-to-date tunes.



The story kicked off as an exclusive in The Sun and coverage spread to

the likes of The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. The Big Breakfast

then got in on the act, putting Greensleeves in a head-to-head

competition with dance tracks in a street in Gloucester. And on her

breakfast show, Radio One DJ Zoe Ball sat in an ice-cream van,

broadcasting Wonderwall outside Liam Gallagher’s house in London.



’We sat down and worked out how we could make Walls ice-cream

interesting for consumers and get some fun, punchy coverage in a short

time-span,’ says Catherine Thorpe, senior associate at

Burson-Marsteller, who masterminded the stunt.



And when news coverage is built from finding a witty angle that is

genuinely going to benefit the product, while not insulting the public’s

intelligence, it is hard to argue that anyone loses out.



When Sony launched its computer game, Crash Bandicoot, a few years ago,

the MacLaurin Group created a campaign so tongue in cheek, that nobody

was hood-winked in the process.



’People didn’t know what a bandicoot was, so we set up the Bandicoot

Protection Society and released a story that a bandicoot was on the run

in Scotland - which was patently ridiculous as the animal’s natural

habitat is the Australian desert,’ says managing director Brian

MacLaurin.



Within hours, listeners up and down the country were phoning their local

radio stations with spoof sightings of the marsupial and some farmers

even claimed they had shot it. ’Sony came out of the whole thing really

well, and everybody knew that it was just a bit of fun,’ adds

MacLaurin.



However, these sort of stunts stir up a hornet’s nest of professional

issues for more traditional PR practitioners, and MacLaurin admits that

his methodology has moved on in recent years: ’We create a set of

circumstances to get the interest of journalists, but in association

with strategy, demographics, timing and evaluation. Otherwise creative

news management can be very damaging.’





PR IS ALL ABOUT SPIN DOCTORING



Ghislain Pascal, managing director, Panic



PR is all about spin. Most stories that we read in the papers, see on

TV, or hear on the radio have been fed by some PR. The challenge we as

PRs have is in making the media believe the stories are true.



The masters of spin are Max Clifford and Matthew Freud. Their clients

pay them thousands of pounds to promote them, so they must be doing

something right. Matthew Freud’s most recent success was in linking Geri

Halliwell with Chris Evans, both of whom are his clients.



Personally, I don’t think the publicity has done their credibility any

good, as we are all sick of them. But do they care?



Geri wanted publicity to help sell her single Lift Me Up, and to promote

her recent autobiography If Only. The single went straight to number

one, and her book has topped the bestsellers’ list, selling more than

35,000 copies so far, no mean feat for a hardback. Chris wanted

publicity, as he is trying to sell his company, Ginger Productions -

there are several offers on the table. So the media coverage has worked

for both of them.



For every major story such as the Chris and Geri affair, there are a

million and one other stories published every day. We recently

piggy-backed Cliff Richard’s chart success by leaking stories to the

papers that Cliff was thinking of buying Liberty Radio - one of our

clients - as it had playlisted his record. The result was a story in the

News of the World and The Express, even through there was no truth in

the story whatsoever.



The funniest story I’ve ever spun was for April Fool’s years ago, when I

sent out a release for human rights charity, Survival, stating that the

US government was considering giving back New York to the Native

Americans.



The story was picked up worldwide and we even had a phonecall from an

Aboriginal organisation in Australia wanting more information. The best

PR is the best spin that makes great reading.





SPINNING KNOCKS PR’S CREDIBILITY



Ken Deeks, UK managing director, Kaizo



It drives me mad that publicity scams are even described by the media as

PR campaigns. The 90s have seen a seismic shift in attitudes toward

PR.



After years of being stuck with the ’puff and fluff’ Ab Fab stereotype,

PR is finally starting to win credibility in boardrooms the world

over.



Much of the respect being attributed to PR is thanks to the work being

done by organisations such as the PRCA and the IPR to raise professional

accountability by introducing consultancy management standards.



But much of it is also down to the sheer vision, energy and focus that

has been shown by PR practitioners, who are determined to win the trust

of their clients, prove the worth of their activities, and deliver

tangible results.



To see companies which really should know better condoning the use of

cheap, tacky publicity stunts in order to secure column inches is really

demoralising.



To then see such frivolous efforts actually reported as PR practice

leaves a really sour taste in my mouth.



PR is a powerful business tool for managing corporate reputation and

building strong customer relationships. By providing sustained brand

visibility and a consistent platform for dialogue, it enables even the

most complex organisation to be properly identified, positioned and

understood.



But corporate reputation can’t be grown overnight, and that’s the

critical point being missed by organisations and agencies which get

sucked into spinning lightweight stories as a way of achieving a quick

press splash.



Goodwill, collaboration and trust are the watchwords of any

communications consultancy worth its salt, and principles such as

honesty, integrity and openness are the key building blocks of the

communications process.



PR has to take itself more seriously if it wants to retain its status as

a profession and continue to be recognised as a company’s most effective

tool for raising awareness, reducing risk and managing crisis.



In July, PR Week reported that Sir Anthony Greener, Diageo chairman and

a member of the PR Week Best Practice Steering Group, believed the Best

Practice Campaign should work toward ’managing the expectations and

communicating the benefits of PR more clearly to clients’.



In the light of so many pseudo-PR stories appearing in the papers in

recent months, perhaps the task of explaining what’s PR and what’s not

should begin a little closer to home.



Releasing inaccurate, flimsy information to the press may seem like a

harmless bit of fun, but the knock-on effect is hugely damaging to the

industry’s credibility. The PR industry shoots itself in the foot every

time it allows itself to be associated with tabloid gossip. It’s time it

stopped.



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