Why the world of PR is changing by Alastair Campbell

When I did the PRConversations PRoust Questionnaire I cited Alastair Campbell as my PR hero. A choice that was criticised by some who simply see him as the master of the dark arts of spin and old command and control communications.

I said that Alastair is much maligned and misunderstood, not only for what he achieved in government working for Tony Blair, but also for how he understands the changing communications landscape. Yesterday Alastair gave a speech at the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs Annual Oration in Melbourne, Australia that shows just how well he grasps the new world and why we as public relations professionals and corporate communicators should listen to him .

The video speech isn’t available online (although looking at the CCPA website it appears that it could be in future, but behind a members only firewall). However, if it was available to watch I believe it would be blisteringly good as Alastair’s a great speaker and he’s published a brilliant article of the speech  on his blog and Huffington Post.

In it he sets out how the landscape of the communications and public affairs world has changed. It is a lengthy article, but that’s its strength. He covers not only social media and the internet, but also crucially the reputation of PR:

As the PR industry grew up, for the brains and brand gurus, it did a lousy job on its own reputation, and indeed terms like “PR” and “spin” are synonyms for bullshit, lies, deception.

So if PRs were so good at PR, why did PR get such a bad reputation? Answer, in my view, partly because some PRs aren’t actually so good at it, but also because the real spin doctors in the modern world are journalists, broadcasters and bloggers, and they want their readers, viewers and listeners to think they have the monopoly on truth, and so subtly and not so subtly suggest people ignore everyone else – politicians and their spokesmen, companies and their advisers, countries and their brand managers.

If you’ve ever heard Alastair speak then you’ll know he’s a great storyteller and this speech was no exception as he shared a story about interview with Bill Clinton.

I want to tell you a story about Bill Clinton. It used to upset Tony Blair when I said Clinton was the greatest strategic communicator I worked with. Tony thought he was.

Now if I say to you ‘when Bill Clinton had his troubles …’ what image comes to your mind? The wars he dealt with? The economic crises? The public service reforms? No, every single one of you thought of Monica. Now how much bad press did he get during that period? Tons of it, global.

Yet on the day the Starr report came out, Clinton was on the phone to TB. They talked about Ireland and Russia. I know, because I was listening.

A few years later, when his book came out, I did an interview with him for TV. I asked him if he remembered the conversation. He did. I asked how he was able to focus on something like Ireland and Russia when his whole life, personal, political, professional, might be about to crash around him.

He said this… “I had a simple objective – survival. My strategy was to get up every day, focus on those things only I could do, because I was the president. And my tactics were to make sure the people knew that is what I was doing. They sustained me throughout.”

I love that story. Not least because Objective, Strategy, Tactics had always been No. 1 on the list of 10 guidelines for leadership and strategy that I had on a postcard I always carried with me. 1. OST. 2 Be bold. 3. Be adaptable. 4. Best team leaders are best team players. 5. Stay calm in a crisis. 6. Listen but lead. 7. Get good out of bad. 8. YOU set the agenda. 9. Head above parapet. 10. Visualise the victory.

But OST is the most important of those.

Clinton said something else that stuck with me that day: “Too many decision makers define their reality according to that day’s media. It is almost always a mistake.”

I’ve only given you a couple of choice extracts here, but I’d urge you to go and read the full article. It genuinely is a must read and must quote piece for public relations and public affairs professionals.

There are certainly some quotes from Alastair that I’m going to include in my updated Digital Public Affairs training and Modernised Media Relations training courses.

If you want to hear Alastair talking about the changing communications landscape and social media then take a look at this video he did for Stephen Waddington and Steve Earl for the launch of Brand Anarchy.