Don't call me a spin doctor

PR's image has been unfairly tarnished by the media cynically equating it with 'spin', says Colin Byrne
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The Independent Online

It was a gripping contest, with the leaders campaigning positively, focusing on their assets, and never resorting to negative attacks on their opponents. But enough about Comic Relief Does Fame Academy, what about politics?

It was a gripping contest, with the leaders campaigning positively, focusing on their assets, and never resorting to negative attacks on their opponents. But enough about Comic Relief Does Fame Academy, what about politics?

Surveying the media, it is hard to believe that the election hasn't already started. Margaret's Shoulder is the new Jennifer's Ear, but the insults and lists of statistics are all drearily familiar. A recent poll showed that four-fifths of voters felt that the parties were resorting to negative campaigning rather than explaining their policies. And above all the claims and counter-claims that will be thrown around in the coming weeks, one accusation will get chucked about more than any other: "spin!".

One man's spin is another's public relations. Despite its poor standing with the media, PR is the third most popular career choice for graduates, and is an industry with an estimated 40,000 professionals, worth around £1bn and growing rapidly. But despite its aim to manage the reputations of organisations, products and people, PR can't manage its own image for toffee.

It is ironic that the term "public relations" is so similar to one of the definitions of politics - the relationships between people. Because politics and PR have been thrown together on to a slippery slope of public disregard. Easy to see why. Ask any reasonably informed person to name a PR person or a "spin doctor", and the list is likely to include Jo Moore (she of "good day to bury bad news" infamy), my old boss Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Max Clifford.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I worked for Mandelson, helping to run Labour's communications, and with politicians including Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Those were the days before The Sun shone on New Labour (although it's just sunny intervals these days). I would regularly wake up to press reports that distorted and occasionally downright lied about my party and its leaders. Yet political hacks dubbed the likes of me, Dave Hill, Mandelson and Campbell "spin doctors". A bit rich given the bias and editorial slants that creep into some newspapers daily.

The media's fascination with so-called "spin" continues, 15 years after the term was imported from American politics. Recently, the normally sober Financial Times's coverage of Labour's election strategy was dwarfed by the picture of Alastair Campbell that it ran with it, suggesting that the "spin doctor" is more important and interesting than the elected politician who is officially leading the campaign.

Most communications professionals want PR to have a seat at the decision-making table (a survey of Management Today's most admired UK companies suggested that about half have their head of PR on the board or senior management team), but when they get there, as with Campbell, the media cry "spin!" rather than "strategy!".

It is also true, to an extent, that the obsession with "spin" has in the past been fed by the arrogance and bad practice of a small band of unelected advisers who thought that Labour's landslide return to power in 1997 was the opportunity to throw their weight around with the media and each other's political bosses.

Often not professional PRs at all, they have been locked with the political journalists in a symbiotic love-hate relationship that has impacted on the standing of the PR business just as it has on politics and politicians. It is not PR that is eroding the reputation of politics - if anything, it is the other way round.

The sight, just a few weeks ago, of the Blair and Brown media briefers trying to outspin each other on whose man cares more about the developing world was hardly edifying. Can you imagine Bono and Geldof calling in the press agents to do battle over which of them cared the most about the starving? I don't believe either man directs these operations. They are both bigger and better people. But so long as a few shadowy briefers keep feeding a waiting, willing media, the public will look on and turn off.

It is perfectly legitimate for a press secretary to advocate their politician or party over the opposition, and for an individual or organisation to use professional communications to advocate their cause or product or service - as long as the common denominator is truth, not lies or distortion. When a company arms itself with professional legal or financial or management consulting advice, that is seen as sensible. But to the cynics, when that company looks to professional PR support, well, they must have something to hide, mustn't they?

Of course, PR is itself partly to blame for its negative image, because it likes a bit of glamour to be associated with it. After all, how many professions have great sitcoms such as Absolutely Fabulous written about them?

We PRs are as likely to honour a Mark Bolland or a Charlie Whelan as a celebrity representative of our industry as we are a hard-working PR. And when they turn out to be the story themselves, turning on their former bosses for a quick buck, it's the PR industry's reputation, not their bank balance, that suffers.

Snigger if you like, but I am proud of what I do and of the profession I chose. In a world where people want information and informed choices, what PRs do is increasingly important, and, on the whole, they work to very high standards. We PRs must stand up for ourselves and for the right of our organisations and clients to have their voices heard and causes advocated, using professional communications in an increasingly challenging and cynical communications environment.

Last year, I caused ripples by appointing David Yelland, former editor of The Sun, to a senior post at Weber Shandwick. PR Week called the move "audacious". In fact, David's experience went beyond tabloids and included a stint on The Times's business pages, but I understood the fuss. Yelland was the most high-profile "defector" to what journalist friends call "the dark side". Talking of his move into PR, Yelland says he found it "more management consultancy than Max Clifford. Most definitely not Ab Fab".

Colin Byrne is CEO of Weber Shandwick, the UK's leading PR consultancy. He has previously worked as chief press officer and election adviser to the Labour Party