Come in Spinner: When diving into PR it’s the degree of difficulty

The Power Index’s Top 10 PR people raises some fascinating questions about how you judge PR people and their influence in what is essentially a transient industry operating within complex societies.

Being a PR person for a conservative cause or party is not that hard in the US or Australia where some mass market media outlets are always willing to publish outlandish and distorted claims and propaganda about anything which damages any progressive cause. On the degree of difficulty a diver would be judged by, such PR people might struggle to get above a six or seven for their performance.

The recent anti-mining industry tax campaign is a good example. While the advertising was good it was predictable and its strength was this predictability. It would be surprising, if given good research, half a dozen other ad agencies could not have come up with something similar and as effective.

The media management side was equally easy when CEOs could blithely describe the tax as the biggest sovereign risk facing them in the world and others could claim they would up sticks and head off to Africa and other places with few challenges. According to The Economist (11 February 2012) South Africa is considering a 50% super profits tax; Ghana is raising taxes from 25% to 35% and introducing a 10% super profits tax; Zambia is doubling royalties on copper; Guinea is demanding that bauxite producers hand over a stake in their companies, Namibia is pursuing quasi-nationalisation; Nigeria is re-negotiating off-shore oil contracts – and that’s just Africa and doesn’t include similar moves throughout South America. The probability of you seeing sustained media publicity for these developments is about the same as seeing sustained coverage of UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres’, comments that the debate about refugees in Australia was way out of proportion. You are more likely, in this case, to see variations on the Daily Telegraph’s fantasies about refugees being given plasma TVs and caviar for dinner.

Political PR people are also handicapped by transience – in Opposition you always struggle, although if you win you are suddenly recognised as a genius then become a loser beat again when your party inevitably loses later in the cycle. Speechwriters tend to be better known and have longer lives – often because their literacy allows them to shape the record by writing their own books (eg Don Watson and Graham Freudenberg) – than Ministerial media advisers many of whose literacy is on a level with their knowledge of communications outside dealing with the gallery.

Profile is often a poor gauge because most PR senior PR strategists have little to do with the media or have a public profile at all. The ones who deal a lot with journalists – as political PR people are forced to – are assumed to be more important because journalists assume PR is about talking to them. Indeed, as a general rule, the more visible a PR person is the less important they probably are. Similarly, most people would never have heard of many of the most successful marketing communications PR people although in many ways their jobs are more difficult than the jobs in the regulation-constrained financial PR field.

Just how influential PR people are in forming opinion is also problematic. Most PR people work within ruling ideologies and hegemonic beliefs rather than changing them. They may re-inforce attitudes and opinions but that they rarely create strikingly new ones.

Longevity is probably important and a fascinating list would be the top 10 people in Australian PR history. Probably Geoff Allen (who is not in PR of course) would be the only contemporary player to get a guernsey. Others such as Eric White, the founder of EWA which became Hill & Knowlton in Australia; Laurie Kerr, IPR founder; and, Sir Asher Joel would probably be in such a top 10 list and there would be many arguments about who else might be on it.

Increasing specialisation, geographic factors and the changing structure of the industry – with a shift away from the significance of consultancies to corporate and government PR – also shape how judgements about who is important and who isn’t.  When specialisation and geography is taken into account there are a number of names (all of whom I have worked with, work with from time to time or have competed against) in consultancy which come to my mind immediately. They include:  Peter Mahon (does most major administrations and the Catholic Church), John Ridley (lobbying, strategy and PPPs) in Victoria, Stephanie Paul (corporate and financial) in Queensland, Lelde McCoy (social marketing), Anthony Tregoning (financial PR), Robina Xavier (education and financial PR) at QUT, and Pino Migliorino and Joseph Assaf (multicultural marketing). Most other people in the industry could come up with a similar list of names, equally valid, across a range of areas from their own experiences.  In corporate areas an even longer list would be easy to construct – some of them the names on the Power Index list but many others not.

All that is certain is that in another decade there will be another list of ‘PR gurus’ who will be alleged to shape what we think. Don’t be mistaken – they will be influential – but just less so than you think.