Some basic lessons in public relations

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Look, I’ll be the first to admit that I know nothing about the theory and practice of the ‘profession’ of public relations. I’ve just been making a living out of doing it for nigh on 40 years, following some very basic principles: tell the truth (though not necessarily ALL the truth), be clear, be accurate, react at speed, and treat people the way you would like to be treated yourself.

For an object lesson in how NOT to do public relations, I don’t think we need look much further than HM Government. I so wish that The Thick Of It was still on TV so that I could purloin the superlative of ‘omnishambles’ that Malcolm Tucker would doubtless have devised for the expected announcement of the coming lockdown that maybe isn’t actually a lockdown, but will be tiered like a wedding cake and definitely involve Liverpool and maybe Manchester and definitely involve closing pubs but maybe not restaurants because this Covid virus is a cunning blighter that can obviously tell the difference between a restaurant and a pub that serves food.

Now, to be fair, part of this apparently endless series of unhelpful, confusing and often contradictory leaks may be down to the need to consult local power centres because of the ‘devolution’ that was, in my opinion, one of the stupidest things that Tony Blair chose to inflict on a country of the modest size of the UK.

Being married to someone whose job is helping to run a wedding venue with an English postal address that is actually located within Wales has given me seven months of insight into the confusion that is sown by having different rules in adjacent areas. Particularly when the rules often seem to be made different purely for the sake of it.

I don’t really understand why it appears that some or all of us essentially look likely to be invited to make ourselves prisoners in our own homes for the duration of the winter to ‘save the NHS’. Is this also happening elsewhere, or is ‘our NHS’ perchance uniquely useless?

But if it is the considered judgement of Government, and its professional public health advisers, that we need to do this, then it needs to formulate a coherent policy in private, behind closed doors. Then it needs to announce that publicly – ideally in Parliament, rather than through leaks to favoured journalists – and explain in the clearest possible terms how it has reached that decision and how it proposes to enforce it.

It also needs to make clear that enforcement applies to all. There can be no exceptions for favoured advisers who fancy a 260 mile run up the A1 with their Covid-hit family, or MPs with ‘judgement impaired by the virus’ who decide to take a 350 mile train journey while knowingly infected. For my money Dominic Cummings and Margaret Ferrier should not only be out of their jobs; they should be granted a little time to reflect upon their errors behind bars.

It is no coincidence at all that public compliance with the national lockdown started to break down as soon as the Cummings story broke in May, and another PR lesson I have learnt over the years is that trust, once lost, is almost impossible to earn back.

It says much for the complete and utter uselessness of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party that his successor still hasn’t managed to establish a commanding lead in the opinion polls. It’s like managing only to draw a football match where the other side scores an own goal every time one of its players gets a foot anywhere near the ball.

I am absolutely fed up to the back teeth of being unable to plan any aspect of my life for the next few weeks because I keep reading leaks rumouring that I won’t be allowed to travel, won’t be allowed to stay overnight outside my home area, won’t be allowed to eat out etc etc etc.

FFS, Prime Minister, get a grip. STOP LEAKING STUFF TO THE MEDIA. Read the first paragraph of this article. Tell the truth, be clear, be accurate, be quick, and above all treat people the way you would like to be treated yourself.

Assuming, of course, that you don’t like to be treated as a bumbling halfwit.

Keith Hann is Director of Corporate Affairs at Iceland Foods but writes in an entirely personal capacity. He is also the author of The Bluffer’s Guide to Public Relations, a bulk order of which from Whitehall might possibly do some good.

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