When PR goes bad – inaccuracy, muddle and confusion

I’ve been catching up on The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story in its late night re-run on the BBC. A strong narrative running through the episodes that I’ve seen so far (six out of the ten) is the All Star / Dream Team defence lawyers’ focus on winning at all costs, and how ill equipped the district attorney’s prosecutors seem to be in reacting to this strategy.

What comes across loud and clear is the importance of the narrative. As a Vanity Fair article states: the side with the best story wins. Quoting from episode seven, it cites Alan Dershowitz:

If there’s gonna be a media circus, you better well be the ringmaster.”

Which brings me to the point of this post, the UK’s forthcoming EU In/Out referendum. Roll up, roll up, don’t miss all the fun of the fair. Yes, there are clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am…

Now when you are defending someone accused of murder, regardless of whether you believe them to be guilty or not, you’re an advocate. It’s dirty work.

EU Referendum – informative public debate?

But the PR practitioners involved in the EU Referendum are participating in what should be an informative public debate, helping people to understand the reasons for voting to stay in the European Union or to leave it. Call me naive, but I wasn’t expecting such a bad performance from the PR teams across all the campaigns. Even old Barnum would be ashamed of the shenanigans we’ve witnessed.

To complain of inaccuracy, muddle and public confusion is putting things mildly. I was going to call it chutzpah – but Mirriam-Webster defines that as:

Personal confidence or courage that allows someone to do or say things that may seem shocking to others”

We could opt for propaganda, which the same source states concerns:

Ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause”

But that fails to account for the utter shambles that has been the communication efforts of presumably hundreds of public relations practitioners representing individuals, organisations, political parties, influential groups, official institutions and so on.

Social media is clogged with stuff (infographics, media reports, opinion pieces, corporate statements, etc) shared by members of the public who are trying to make sense of it all, persuade others of their righteous perspective or convey smugly their certainty having already voted by post…. Comments on many posts are commonly offensive, aggressive and lacking in any understanding that others may have a counter viewpoint.

In good old circus tradition, there’s even a choice of Remain/Brexit flavours of ice-cream.

But wait, we have the boss of Unilever saying the price of ice-cream could rise with a leave vote. Then again, such a decision wouldn’t affect its investment in Britain.

#Brexit v. Remain – insulting voter intelligence?

It’s impossible not to agree with the former Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, who has stated the public relations campaign “insults the intelligence of the voters“.

His statement preceded yesterday’s low point of the flotilla debacle on the River Thames in London. All that was missing was Boaty McBoatface! But then we’ve still a week to go until 23 June.

This descent of the discussion, for what is a deadly important vote that has wide-ranging implications whichever way the result goes, is an embarrassment. And it isn’t just in the UK as the same utter lack of professionalism is evident in the current US political debate.

I’m reminded of the loud-mouthed group of clowns in Disney’s film, Dumbo, who come up with ideas that are ever extreme all in the cause of attention, entertainment and money. Poor Dumbo, like the British public, is the patsy of their grand promotional performance.

Back in 2012, I wrote a post claiming Public Relations as a promotional industry. In the comments, I stated that I wanted to stand up for the body of circus press agents of the 19th and 20th century who get such a bad write up in the history of public relations. In fact, I wrote:

What I’d like to see is less denial of the promotional aspects (of public relations) and actually a focus on improving the standard of such promotional work.”

Today I want to lie down and let the entire parade of marching bands, horses, elephants, jugglers, dancing girls, performing dogs and more, pass right over me.

Public relations may not be to blame for the entire debasement of our democracy, but it is undoubtedly a part of the circus; the troupe of clowns unwittingly revealing the Ringmasters for the fools they increasingly seem to be.

Like OJ’s lawyers, in their desire to win, many people, including those PR practitioners on either side, seem to have forgotten the seriousness of the matter at hand.

Image: https://pixabay.com


After publication of this post, the sad news of the killing of British member of parliament, Jo Cox was reported. Before her election in 2015, Jo had worked as head of policy at Oxfam. She founded the Friends of Syria all-party group at Westminster, and was a respected constituency politician and campaigner. Brendan Cox, Jo’s husband issued a statement saying: “We all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous”. It is not yet known if her death was related to the EU Referendum, despite media suggestions this may be the case. However official campaigning has been suspended as a mark of respect. Our thoughts are with Jo’s family, friends and colleagues at this horrendous time.

Please follow our blog:

3 Replies to “When PR goes bad – inaccuracy, muddle and confusion

  1. Heather, Jo Cox’s murder was an assault on democracy.

    You rightly – and calmly – point out that we don’t know much about what motivated the killer: far right extremism or mental issues or both or something else. But whatever was behind her tragic death, in my view, the best way to honour Jo Cox would be to do more of what she did: campaign and speak out for what you believe in. In her case it was Remain and much more. In that fight she won the respect of every side involved in every debate. That’s a good legacy and an example to emulate.

  2. Heather, great post; I couldn’t agree more with your thrust. I’m for BREXIT. Yet the side I favour has been appalling. Both sides are behaving like preachers claiming that the world ends if you don’t follow them. There’s been hardly any discussion about democracy or principles or the kind of world we want to live in. Neither side has put forward a positive case. Instead they have entered into a firefight between fear mongers bent on out gunning each other. There are strong arguments to be communicated on both sides. Yet they have been neglected; perhaps, as Mervyn King seemingly suggests, because both sides actually think the British people are too thick to handle reasoned debate. Along the way serious damage has been done to the credibility of major institutions – BoE, IMF and much more – and to the reputations of politics and politicians. The resulting divisions and loss ofpublic trust are serious matters. I see no positives in the cynicism this breeds.

    Having said that, if you listen to the audience cross examining our politicians on TV and radio, there is a positive here. Despite the best efforts of the political class, the public has become engaged and shown itself to be fairly resistant to the scaremongering coming from either side. Once the outcome of the referendum is clear, PR pros will have to help bosses and politicians put the gravitas, order and sense back into how they communicate with the public.

Comments are closed.