Two how-to books on the stratagems of PR consultancies offer useful advice, but Francis Beckett finds George Pitcher's free-wheeling anecdotes more fun.
Spin is very much alive, and George Pitcher's book The Death of Spin makes no attempt to pretend otherwise. His title, in fact, is pure spin - it is designed to attract the punters, and bears no relation to the truth. And as often happens with spin, once you penetrate the surface gloss, you find that it hides something genuinely interesting, and you wonder why the spinners felt the need to gild the lily.
Pitcher was industrial editor of the Observer and left journalism in the early 1990s to set up the communications consultancy Luther Pendragon, so he's been both spinned against and spinning.
It's not a career that leaves you starry-eyed. He watched the PR consultancy Dewe Rogerson sell the Thatcher government's privatisation of public utilities like gas and BT - both in the sense of selling the concept and selling the shares. They produced, he says, 'the strategy of 'perception of scarcity' to persuade British investors they needed to compete to buy shares in industrial assets that they had previously owned as taxpayers'. He even heard a top PR boast that he could get copy changed 'on the stone' - that is, when the story is on the page and about to go to press.
He knows the limitations of spin, too, which sets the real communicator apart from the mere spin doctor. He was there on Black Monday, when the FTSE index of leading stocks fell by 26% in two days. 'As budgets and entire companies disappeared,' he says, 'the spivs had to defer to the operators.'
It's all very well getting a sufficiently bullying or corrupt relationship with newspapers that you can change a story on the stone, but when there's a crisis, spinning a line for the press doesn't help. You need a communications strategy. It's a lesson that New Labour learned painfully, at the cost of the career of the unfortunate Transport Secretary Stephen Byers.
He watched his two spin doctors, Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith, tear each other to ribbons in the press, eventually bringing him down with them.
Along the way, Pitcher offers good jokes. 'Have you heard the latest John Prescott joke?' says a taxi driver. 'I'm John Prescott,' says his passenger. 'OK,' replies the cabbie, 'I'll tell it slowly.'
This is a journalist's book, lively and lucid, written fast, mostly (I suspect) from memory, and with the odd minor factual error (it wasn't Tony Blair's prawn cocktail offensive that was lampooned by Michael Heseltine, but John Smith's).
Pitcher is a little inclined to lapse into nostalgic reminiscences of the old Fleet Street hack sitting in El Vinos (which gets a few too many mentions). But it's still a fine book, from a man who has not only seen spin in both business and government, but thought about it too.
It isn't in any sense a how-to book, but it comes hard on the heels of two rather good ones, both of which are more for spinners than strategists.
A few unthinking spin doctor's phrases appear in Winning Reputations - 'build a reputation that will transform your fortunes' ... that sort of thing.
Chris Genasi also falls for the spin doctor's assumption that anything that is any good is new, and the past was a dark age. 'In the past, people simply accepted what they were told by those who controlled society' doesn't describe the world I remember from my '60s youth, but maybe I was more rebellious than Genasi.
He does, however, offer a useful step-by-step guide to building a corporate reputation, as well as some interesting case studies. I like the Body Shop of Canada launch of a new line featuring hemp-seed oil. A few days before the launch, they heard the product might be banned by the Canadian government. Rather than run away and hide, they showed the press blacked-out signs and literature with glued pages so it could not be read, thus turning a dreary product launch into hard news.
The description of authors Naomi Langford-Wood and Brian Salter at the start of Critical Corporate Communications is pure spin: 'Twenty-first century business experts, practical visionaries and serial entrepreneurs.' They've got no particular skills, then? And they apparently run a company called Topspin. Nonetheless, and against all the odds, this book, produced in collaboration with the CBI, is a useful beginner's guide with some sensible advice.
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