Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the evils of PR

Whenever there is a crisis, for instance, every print media outlet gives some hack the job of ringing around various flacks to ask them how they would have handled the crisis and what they thought of how the body in crisis was coping.

In essence this is a sort of high farce in which hacks report solemnly on how well they are being manipulated.

But this is the most obvious form of manipulation. The more profound is found in which parts of flackery the media focuses on; the criminal lack of probing of how true media manipulation works; and, the media’s willingness to help flacks promote themselves.

A special crikey investigation

So this special investigation crikey looks at:

How the media promotes flacks, what they miss and why

How much of what you read and watch is produced through complicity between flacks and hacks

How flacks operate

Who the major players in flackdom actually are

Hacks promoting flacks

Hacks promote flacks consciously, in return for favours and from sheer laziness.

Let’s start at the start to avoid any accusations of people in glasshouses. Some of crikey’s best friends and informants are flacks. Crikey was a flack for Jeff Kennett. And, crikey helped get current Gavin Anderson CEO, Ian Smith, his first gig with that company when then co-owner Sue Cato first offered Crikey the job of hanging out the shingle in Melbourne. Crikey recommended Smithy instead who had just been badly shafted by Kennett and the rest, as they say, is history.

We have even been guilty of pushing flacks barrows from time.

Crikey editor, while at Rear Window in the Fin, inadvertently helped propagate the mythopoaeic self-promotion of Ian Kortlang.

More recently the crikey editor promoted the high-minded ethical stance of Keith Jackson of Jackson Wells Morris and his threat to leave the PRIA unless they took action against firms Keith felt were engaged in astroturfing – specifically over a retail project and the DMG campaign. Now crikey is absolutely certain that Jackson was solely and entirely motivated by public spirit, moral concern and high ethical standards in taking his stance. But some readers may have been interested to know two facts about the situations of which Keith complained. The first, involving Ian Nicholas in NSW, was over a client for which JWM had also pitched and then lost out to Nicholas. The second, involved Turnbull Porter Novelli. In this case TPN is believed to be one of a number of companies JWM had approached in a bid to sell themselves, only for the negotiations, in each case, to break down in the face of Keith’s unrealistic demands for millions of dollars. While neither circumstance obviously influenced Keith in taking his stand a few more questions might have resulted in a slightly longer story.

On the other hand in the latter case, to crikey and Keith’s credit, most people in the industry were delighted at TPN CEO, Noel Turnbull’s, discomfort over DMG and Ken Davis in the light of Turnbull’s lectures to his competitors on ethics.

But generally speaking crikey’s sins are probably purely venial as opposed to the mortal ones of others.

Murray Mottram of The Age managed to write a major piece on IPR Shandwick (now Weber Shandwick), headed by ex-Age editor, Mike Smith, about their power and influence in the land. Ostensibly an investigation, it managed to miss the most interesting angles – how and why a company which had been the number one consultancy for flacks for almost quarter of a century had managed to slip at least five places down the league tables? Those angles might have said a lot about just what is really happening in the world of flackery.

The strange relationship between Melbourne media and Shandwick has been, of course, commented on before by crikey in reporting on the Shandwicks (sorry the Quills) the so-called journalistic prize run by the Shandwick company (sorry the Melbourne Press Club).

More recently the AFR and AAP both reported – without investigation or questioning apparently – that a Singleton-WPP joint venture had created Australia’s biggest PR company. Only Paul McIntyre of the Australian’s media section probed whether the claim was true and whether Ogilvy PR’s plan was as substantial and as original as the media material claimed.

McIntyre also deserves an honorable mention among marketing writers, most of whom simply regale readers with whatever their contacts tell them, for the massive hatchet job he did on PR flak Ian Kortlang, again in the Australian media section. While the piece had obviously suffered heavily from News’ lawyers intervention there was enough left to suggest that much about Kortlang was either myth propagated by self-promotion or just plain ugly.

Be careful, extensive media consumption may be harmful to your health

So what are you actually reading and watching?

According to research both here and overseas some 80 to 90 percent of all media content has been mediated in some way or other by flacks.

Nearly all the lifestyle sections of print and electronic media are straight promotions sourced from companies and their flacks.

Most political coverage has been placed by Ministers and MPs who swap access for favorable coverage or the shafting of opponents. Government press secretaries, advisers and departmental people are probably the biggest single group of spin doctors in the country. Indeed, as crikey readers know already government today is more about spin than administration. Yet it is not the advisers who do most of the spinning – on the big stuff it is almost always a Premier, party leader, PM or Minister who makes the call and gives the background. The staff are simply messenger boys and girls.

Most analysis in the financial pages (with the notable exceptions of the Sykes, Dunstans etc) are the product of background briefings by brokers, company CEOs and investment bankers. All three employ PR companies and PR people partly for protective coloration. The brokers and investment bankers in floats use companies such as Cannings, Hintons, Gavin Anderson and Cosways to talk to the general finance media as highly paid press agents while strategy and the more selective briefings are the province of the financiers who do it themselves.

Some individuals have taken this to a fine art. Mike Tilley, now chairman Merrill Lynch, is a formidable spin doctor as well as being an investment banker. John Wylie, former MD of CSFB, was often on both sides of the various leaks about what bidders were doing on power privatisation during the glory days of the Kennett Government days.

Much TV news – other than the disasters and road accidents – are simply records of visual opportunities dreamed up by flacks.

While these days investigative reporting is pretty rare, the final irony is, that when it does focus on the PR industry it often has help from the spin doctors.

For instance, the recent reporting on the DMG case was less a result of deep probing by reporters and more a result or prompting by DMG’s lawyers and PR firm, Edelman. Edelman, then Rowland, is the company which worked for Solly Lew while he was executive chairman of Coles Myer battling Yannon accusations.

Shandwick’s NZ problems with a dodgy forestry campaign were also peddled to the Australian media by both the author of the whistleblowing book and Shandwick competitors.

So who are the spinners?

The most significant spinners are the major players themselves – CEOs, Ministers, lawyers, bankers etc – who swap access and the frisson of talking to the powerful for the right coverage.

They are supported by the hordes of flacks employed by government departments, companies and organisation. These are normally dignified by the terms “spokespeople” in the reports you read.

A key institution in the middle of all this is Geoff Allen’s Centre for Corporate Affairs. With annual training courses, newsletters, regular meetings, overseas “best practice” study tours almost every significant player in corporate and institutional flackdom has been on a CCA course. While the course content would disappoint the anti-corporate conspiracy theorists’ expectations the CCA has been a powerful club for public affairs professionals.

Then there are the hundreds of PR companies – from big and global to small and local.

The biggest of the consultancies, according to research undertaken by Paul McIntyre for the international publication PR Week, are (in order) Turnbull Porter Novelli (part of Clemenger), PPR (part of George Patterson Bates), Hill & Knowlton (despite some recent retrenchments), Burson Marsteller and Weber Shandwick. The new Ogilvy operation, if it becomes one company and doesn’t include Ethnic Communications non-consultancy revenue, could be among the biggest.

After that come a host of independents. Jackson Wells Morris, Michels Warren, Stratcom Communique, Royce, Capital and so on. Plus there are small to medium niche players such as Hawker Britton, John Connolly, Cannings, Gavin Anderson, Adam Kilgour’s CPR, Hintons and others.

Ironically, when the media does focus on flacks it is these companies which they tend to feature – rather than the broader process of media manipulation.

Flack features

The key players in the mix (other than the CEOs, Ministers etc) are probably Allen’s Centre for Corporate Affairs and the big three or four consultancies.

Over the past 50 years Australia’s biggest consultancies have been, sucessively, Eric White Associates, IPR and Turnbull Porter Novelli. EWA was formed by ex-Menzies press sec Eric White; IPR by Laurie Kerr (not least ex-Carlton Football club); and, Noel Turnbull (ex-Victorian Labor Opposition staffer).

The biggest and most influential independent is probably the Royce company headed by Peter Mahon.

Interestingly Mahon, Turnbull, Kerr and White all strive (or strove in the late Eric White’s case) for virtual invisibility and observe(d) the policy of not speaking to the media about their company or clients . However, in recent months Turnbull has been forced into making media statements (if only prepared ones) as a result of the DMG case.

But generally speaking it seems the bigger you are the more secretive you get.

Here are the rules

So – for all you out there interested in how opinion is formed – here are some rules which might form a handy guide.

Most stuff in the media was placed there. If you want to know whodunnit ask yourself the questions cui bono? or cui malo ? For our Canberra readers who didn’t have the benefit (like crikey) of a classical education cui bono means who gets the advantage from it, who benefits? Cui malo is the exact opposite – who was it meant to shaft.

Most of it has been placed by the very same people who you read about in other parts of the paper.

The more noise a flack makes about themselves the less likely they are to be important or influential. Conversely the more invisible the more they should be watched.

The journalists are normally looking the wrong way – and even when they aren’t can’t afford to admit that they are complicit in much of what goes on.

, 05..and most of all, if you subscribe to crikey you have an excellent chance of learning the truth behind all this.


Jackson Wells Morris chairman responds

Dear Stephen –

Frank Flack is almost remarkably well informed. Had the questions alluded to been asked they would have been answered thus:

(1) There would be few PR firms in Sydney JWM would not have pitched against – and lost. (One of the great levellers in our business is the losing pitch – they’re lessons in practical humility.) Frank could name every flack in the city and I could say we’d lost against them and Frank could say I had a grudge. Not much of an insight, really. (And why Ian Nicholas – is there something we ought to know?) BTW, the only time I know for sure we pitched and lost to Ian was for the Monster.com people – quite a few years ago now. There may have been others. Flacks rarely know for sure who they’re pitching against unless they have one of those embarrassing “gee, are you here too?” corridor moments.

(2) TPN first indicated an interest in acquiring JWM in late 1999. We were interested and, not knowing commendably little about how the world market for minor Aussie PR firms was shaping up, reacted (unusually but I hope rationally) by writing to the world’s 15 biggest PR firms saying, and I’m paraphrasing, “if we were on sale, would you be interested”. Over time, we had about 8 responses and a number of interesting discussions. TPN turned out to be one of these.

Whether or not it turned out the TPN discussions ground to a halt because of money, I don’t know. I’d attributed it to my awkward personality! Initially TPN made a complex offer our accountant told us was worth around about $1.8M. JWM’s annual revenue was about $2.3M at the time – your reader can judge whether the offer was lowish or not. Then they intimated this might be increased to $3M but never confirmed the number. We worked out that we could do better by not selling. A helluva lot better.

Since TPN, we’ve talked to two other multinationals. In the first case they went elsewhere; in the second we pulled the plug early. We’d worked out if there’s going to be a beauty contest, we want to be the impresario not the debutante.

Your reader might be interested in the three considerations that our PR firm would make in selling. And they would be decided in this ascending order of importance:

1 – The price has to be right (not excessive, just fair).

2 – Given that we would need to work in close harmony with a new owner, the cultural fit (OK, chemistry) has to be right.

3 – And the big one – we’d have to decide we’d rather be a branch office than a free trader. That’s hard – we like our autonomy and independence but there are advantages in being part of a larger entity.

So far no discussion has even leaped the first hurdle let alone the other two.

Good on yer, Frank. A few errors do not a story kill. Now I look forward to you turning your attention to a few of our competitors – but not nearly so much as I look forward to their responses (and subscriptions) to Crikey.

Keith Jackson