Categories: Media issues / Political spin / Trust and reputations

9 December 2012

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Muse on Leveson’s muddle over police PR

Here is an on the record briefing about Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for “improving” the British police’s PR. It begins with the paragraph where Leveson recommends altering the PR lexicon. 

The real problem with Leveson’s report is that a high court judge has, almost amusingly, set himself up as a PR guru qualified to issue guidelines to the police and politicians about spinning PR practice. In the process, he ends up seeking to micromanage their processes and rules (codes) of engagement and to fiddle with the terminology they use to describe what they do. Let’s examine Leveson’s proposals in point 75 on page 43 of his executive summary as an example. There he states that:

The term ‘off-the-record briefing’ should be discontinued. The term ‘non-reportable briefing’ should be used to cover a background briefing which is not to be reported, and the term ‘embargoed briefing’ should be used to cover a situation where the content of the briefing may be reported but not until a specified event or time. These terms more neutrally describe what are legitimate police and media interactions.

One could conclude from this paragraph that Leveson’s intention was to ban ‘off the record briefings’, but that would be a mistake. Elsewhere he states quite clearly that that’s not what he means to achieve:

Everybody agrees that such briefings can operate in the public interest, particularly in the context of a relationship of trust between individual journalists and police officers: even-handedness is, however, critical. However, in the light of evidence I have heard I am concerned about the lack of clarity inherent in the use of the term and in the precise information to which it refers: I have therefore recommended that briefings should be designated as open, embargoed (in time), non-reportable or, where a combination, clear so as to be beyond doubt. (point 93 on p. 21 of his executive summary)

But if his intention was merely to change the PR vocabulary in order to avoid ambiguity, he’s failed.

Calling something a ‘non-reportable briefing’ implies just that: what’s said is clearly not meant to end up in print or to be reported anywhere else. Whereas PR pros and journalists know that ‘off the record’ more often than not means ‘non-attributable’ because the person doing the briefing does indeed hope to see most of what’s said appear in print/on air as ‘sources/insiders say/suggest/tell me’, or even (especially in ‘deep’ off the record) as the reporter’s very own insight without mentioning who inspired them to think so clearly.

Sometimes, an off the record briefing is intended to save the PR, the client and the journalist the embarrassment of a story’s appearing at all.  For instance, the press officer might let a reporter know – deeply off the record - that such-and-such a complainant against one’s client or employer (a police officer, say)  is bonkers or vicious and not to be trusted.  That, by the way, is why PR professionals need to cultivate journalists: both sides need to earn and deserve trust.

As to Sir Brian’s remarks on the use of background briefings – he is similarly confused or ill-informed.

Background briefings are often designed to bring journalists up to speed, with the intention of helping them to produce informed reports about complex issues. Hence, they are rarely used to get across hard news. They are often about quite boring matters of policy or technology which the journalist needs to understand and do so well enough to be confident about glossing over the nuts and bolts which inform a story but would clutter it to the point of unreadability.

The use of the term ‘embargoed’ is so deeply ingrained in the culture of journalists and PR professionals that I don’ think the good judge has anything useful to add. I’ve had a number of instances in my career when journalists have broken my embargoed comments or press releases, and I’ve made them grovel afterward. Such instances often taught me not to trust them. However, it has to be said that while breaking such rules is already considered shameful, sadly, standards have slipped in recent years and embargoes have been broken routinely by some journalists. This often means that PRs feel they have to withold information which would have helped journalists write more intelligently, if only they’d waited for the starting gun to publish.

Moreover, Leveson’s call for the police and their PR handlers to manage their media relations in a more even-handed manner is naive. There are good reasons why PR pros might favour journalist ‘a’ over journalist ‘b’ for this or that story. We are often talking about making judgement calls involving relationships based on trust. Sometimes, life is not fair; so be it. The issue of corruption and or overly-familiar relationships is another issue altogether.

Hence Lord Justice Leveson’s preference for imposing bureaucratic solutions that prioritise tinkering with PR’s operational codes, guidelines and terminology might be well-intentioned, rather than anything sinister, but that does not make it necessarily helpful or particularly insightful. Take this example:

For officers of the rank of Commander or Assistant Chief Constable and above, dealing with policy or significant organisational or operational matters, formality and record keeping should be required. More junior ranks should follow the Guidance issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) which includes only speaking to the press on topics for which they have responsibility for communicating and a policing purpose for doing so. I have also made recommendations designed to reduce the risk of abuse. (point 94 on p. 21/22 of his executive summary

An experienced press officer might see things differently. A junior police officer talking to the media unaccompanied by a press officer might pose a bigger threat of going off message than a senior officer with 20 years of media relations under their belt. Then, there’s the thorny issue that I raised previously (here and here) about defining what constitutes ‘policy’ versus ‘organisational’ versus ‘operational’ matters.

It strikes me that the judge was bamboozled by the evidence he heard at his inquiry relating to ‘tip offs, taking media on operations, off-the-record briefings, leaks, whistle-blowing, entertainment’ (see: point 90 on p. 21 of his executive summary). It would seem, then, that Leveson is not only a clumsy wordsmith, he also rather arrogantly over-estimated his own expertise and grasp of all things PR.

Having said all that, I do share Leveson’s wish to encourage the police to develop more formal relations with the media. I share his disgust for how the police – not to mention politicians – have managed their media relations over the last few decades. In fact, I’ve long banged on that drum and called for change. The difference between me and Leveson, however, is that much of my critique has focused on the prejudices and practices of PR professionals themselves. I’ve accused them of being, too often, more keen to serve the media’s needs than their employer’s. Anybody who wants to know more should read my ‘Cops should exercise right to silence‘ and ‘Three Mile Island to G20: lessons in crisis PR‘.

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