Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The wrong end of the stick

It’s funny how sticky adjectives can be. As sticky, as Blackadder once put it, as the time that Sticky the stick insect got stuck on a sticky bun.

For example, it is apparently impossible for any British media organisation to refer simply to the local election results of 1 May. They are invariably the “disastrous” local election results, at least from the viewpoint of Labour and Gordon Brown. Which is naturally the preferred angle, since bad news is so much more gripping than the other sort.

Anticipating this compelling need for an adjective, we PR practitioners tend to stick one in when describing our clients. “Leading” is a popular choice, though thinkers outside the box will aim for “iconic” or “cutting edge” if they possibly can.

With a bit of ingenuity, we can make the best of almost any situation. “A top five company” sounds so much better than “the fifth largest”, particularly if there are only five players in its sector.

Negative adjectives come into their own during hostile takeover bids. I once defended a company whose every action and statement was branded as “woeful” by the other side’s PR firm. It didn’t prove particularly effective, as they lost, but it certainly got right up my nose for 60 long days.

The PR nightmare is the media choosing its own adjective about a company, usually “troubled”. Once your client becomes “the troubled retailer” (or whatever) the word sticks to it like superglue for years. Hours are spent on the phone pointing out that profits have just doubled, and hoping that the journalists concerned don’t remember that they fell by 80% the year before.

Tory Central Office is now apparently road testing “the surprisingly common David Cameron” to counter accusations that he is too privileged to relate to the concerns of ordinary people.

Meanwhile, the polished Government spin machine is also creaking into action, and all future press releases about Gordon Brown will describe him as “the jolly decisive Prime Minister”, leaving a delicious ambiguity about whether “jolly” alludes to his ever-smiling, laugh-a-minute nature, or is simply a substitute for “very”.

I think they’ve got the right end of the stick at last, but I don’t fancy their chances of making it stick in the slightest.

Keith Hann is an energetic and witty PR consultant, and if you believe that …

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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