Tuesday 24 May 2011

The Hann Perspective: Ducks in a Row

Many years ago, when I was new to my present calling, a wise old gent told me that the second rule of public relations is always to get your ducks in a row.

Naturally I did not have the foggiest idea what he was talking about. I thought I had gone into an advisory business, not some feathered branch of agriculture. (In those days, incidentally, I naively believed that ducks were humanely reared on outdoor ponds where caring attendants fattened them up on a diet of only slightly stale bread.)

Over time, though, aligning the aforementioned ducks came to be one of those meaningless phrases, like “thinking outside the box” and “centres of excellence”, that I accepted as part of my daily verbal armoury.

Bullshit Bingo

People nodded when I said it, as though I had imparted some valuable piece of wisdom. All I ever meant was that it might be a good idea, before embarking on some corporate activity or announcement, for those involved to think through what they were trying to achieve and how they were going to explain it to the outside world.

The message did not always get across. I wasted one memorable Sunday trying to persuade the two parties to a particularly ill-starred retail merger to come up with a more convincing strategic rationale than the real one, which was that it had generated lots of lovely fees for the bankers who had conceived the idea of sticking the two businesses together, and who would soon double their money by taking them apart again.

Come the next morning’s press conference, a journalist duly asked the obvious first question: “Why?” And received the less than convincing response: “Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” Followed by a long silence during which I could swear I saw tumbleweed.

Similarly, I have spent countless man hours trawling through the results announcements of my clients and thinking up the nastiest and most devious questions anyone could possibly raise about them. After more than a decade of doing this, one finance director rang me as his train was approaching King’s Cross to say that he and his CEO had read them and were rather impressed.

“We’ve never bothered to look at them before,” he added, disarmingly, which at least explained why they had spent so many previous analysts’ conferences looking vaguely nonplussed. Fortunately the similar lack of attention to rehearsing their presentation meant that the time left for questions was always minimal.

I am glad to say that things have moved on in the business world, while in politics the task of duck alignment has become such an obsession that it is impossible to get a straight answer to any question, as opposed to the carefully prepared and rehearsed answer to the question that the minister or his shadow wanted to be asked.

This lack of spontaneity and, for want of a better word, honesty, is one of the many reasons for the current widespread disillusionment with our political class.

But consider the alternative of the White House, and their vivid accounts of US military operations. Whether it is the sadly botched rescue of a hostage or the elimination of the world’s most wanted terrorist, there never seems to be any delay in blurting out an incredible story of derring-do, apparently concocted by a small boy who has been allowed to spend too long leafing through his grandpa’s stash of 1960s war comics.

But then, like the small boy’s account of how that pane of glass in the greenhouse was broken by a probe from an alien spacecraft, an altogether more prosaic story comes to light.

Almost every detail of the original epic firefight with bin Laden, and how he was subsequently shot while cowering behind his wife, proved to be what Hillary Clinton likes to call “misspoken”. So much so that I did not even feel particularly surprised when I saw a billboard proclaiming “Osama unharmed”, though it turned out when I bought a paper on the strength of it that I had misread “unarmed”.

Now why, when you are dealing with issues so sensitive that people are prepared to blow themselves to pieces to demonstrate the strength of their feelings, would you not think it worth taking a little time and trouble to get your story straight before giving your account of events?

It made me realise, for the first time, the true genius of Ian McDonald, the Ministry of Defence spokesman in the Falklands war, who not only took ages to release a story but then read it at a funereal pace to assist the easy taking of dictation by any hard-of-hearing octogenarian reporters in the vicinity.

And it also reminded me of what that wise old gent I mentioned at the outset told me was the first rule of public relations: “If in doubt, say nowt.”

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who knows all the rules, but does not always obey them – www.keithhann.com

Originally published in nebusiness magazine, The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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