Paul Simons: Ed Miliband/ Mail row shows why PR can be a loose cannon – with ads you get what you pay for

images-1With the Ed Miliband/Daily Mail saga running in to its third week it poses a very interesting question about being careful what you wish for. The delicate balance between the interests of politicians and the media has become a road crash with the fallout continuing in to this weekend. It is likely to run deeper than ‘an error of judgement’ with agendas of polarised political ideologies experiencing a head on collision.

The upsides for both are public sympathy for Red Ed (a YouGov poll for The Sunday Times found that 72 per cent thought the Mail’s headline about Ed’s dad unacceptable) whereas the Mail’s heartland readership is probably applauding the paper for pointing out the threat of Labour’s retreat to the left.

One of the many benefits of classic advertising is control. Assuming it is legal, decent and honest advertising allows the sponsor to be precise about his or her message, without interference. PR on the other hand has the risk of resembling a loose cannon; once it is passed to the hands of journalists it can go off in any direction and the sponsor has lost control.

In my past I used press relations to create profile for our business, a strategy that worked brilliantly for several years. However when we had a big glitch due to partners departing the business the London Evening Standard ran a story with the headline “Midas man loses golden touch” all about me and the business. The worm had turned, albeit on a temporary basis.

Michael O’Leary has profited from ongoing coverage in the national press for years. He milks the coverage with regular suspect remarks and statements that attract the attention of journalists as it is usually good copy, such as making passengers on Ryanair flights pay to go to the loo. Allegedly, a Ryanair staffer described passengers as ‘self-loading freight’, which just about sums up their attitude to their customers. However it would appear at the moment the barrage of aggressive, arrogant headline grabbing sound bites are coming home to roost.

Richard Branson, on the other hand, has been the figurehead of all things Virgin for a very long time, never shy of staging a publicity event, and always seems to come out smelling of roses. Equally the late Steve Jobs seems to have emerged unscathed over many years, which had a major effect on the appeal of Apple.

Brands with human figureheads have the benefit of the personal character helping to define the essence of their enterprise, precisely what political parties work hard at cultivating. UKIP have done well in the last year or so but their ‘brand personality’ is fractured and wobbly because of the public utterances by some of their colourful representatives.

The roles of advertising agencies and PR agencies are broadly similar as the job is a bit like being a QC; we are charged with presenting the best case on behalf of our clients. Our advocacy isn’t balanced, it leads with the best, most compelling story at our disposal and tries to ignore any warts. The difference of course is advertising is subject to pretty strict control in the UK whereas the stories that emerge in the national press are very difficult to pin on any one source as in ‘an insider said……’, plus the weasel word ‘allegedly’. Also, crucially, trying to sue a newspaper for defamation is not for the faint hearted or anyone one with limited funds at their disposal.

I can say, without fear of contradiction, in all the years I’ve worked in the  advertising world I have never experienced a client or a client’s representative ever attempt to persuade me or my colleagues to exaggerate a claim. Most often the reverse has been the case, pulling back in a safe zone. The art of effective advocacy in advertising is attempting to ‘own’ an attribute that is core to the product category. However it needs to be executed not as an ‘absolute’ claim, more via interpretation.

For years Volvo was perceived to be the safest car on the road. Although AMV never made that outright claim, their advertising always asserted safety, an attribute that no other car marque focused on. At Simons Palmer we launched PlayStation on a ‘most powerful’ platform although it was never directly claimed. The campaign line was “Do not underestimate the power of PlayStation”. Years ago at GGT we created a campaign for Ariston based on a generic attribute of ‘reliability’, the campaign line being “Ariston on and on and on”.

BMW have positioned their marque as “The Ultimate Driving Machine” which is a rare absolute claim whereas Carlsberg pulled their punches with the word “Probably” before they asserted “the best lager in the world”. I’m sure that avoided a public battle with all the other lager brands.

I suppose the difference between advertising and the press is the time available to consider what is about to be published. The editorial staff of the Daily Mail or its Sunday counterpart have very limited time to take a decision whereas the ad agency has a lot more time to rewrite copy several times, maybe conduct a bit of research. If needs be check it out with industry watch dogs before publishing.

images-8Having worked on various newspaper accounts there has always been tension between the editorial staff and the agency, based on the timing issue. When Kelvin MacKenzie (left) was the editor of The Sun he would swear and shout at our agency team. His point was he had to approve a headline daily whereas it took the agency weeks to refine advertising. However The Sun was sued regularly – whereas we avoided it.

The view amongst political journalists is to expect a messy and nasty propaganda time ahead of the next election. It will be interesting to see how the parties brief their advertising agencies and the tone it takes. I suspect the famous ‘Labour isn’t working’  poster created by Saatchi & Saatchi will seem tame next time round.


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