Having spent five years editing The Sun, David Yelland thought he knew a thing or two about public relations when he joined PR agency Brunswick.
But by the end of the first week, he says: “I realised that I hardly knew a thing”.
And now, together with the former communications chief to Queen Elizabeth II, Simon Lewis, Yelland hopes to disabuse both journalists and the wider public of some misconceptions about the PR industry.
Yelland and Lewis spoke to Press Gazette ahead of the launch of When It Hits The Fan, the eight-part BBC Sounds podcast they will be presenting from Wednesday 6 September about what happens inside organisations amid a crisis.
Yelland, who spent nine years at Brunswick after his time at The Sun, said that he reads in newspapers “all the time” suggestions that a crisis-hit company could settle controversy by coming out and clarifying things: “‘Why doesn’t a company board do [this or] that? So simple, it’s absolutely simple!’
“It’s never simple. It looks simple, but it isn’t.”
Lewis, who as well as his posting at Buckingham Palace has led communications for Vodafone, Natwest, British Gas and 10 Downing Street under Gordon Brown, said: “Companies in particular are very constrained in what they can say, because they’re often under very strict legal advice.”
He said that within major businesses, there is “a real concern that you don’t want to mislead people” or speak before you have all the information.
“When the chairman of Natwest said that [departed Natwest chief executive] Alison Rose had the full confidence of the board, and then two o’clock the following morning she was gone, that wasn’t a great look.”
Yelland said the conflict between being open and keeping quiet was “always the first dynamic of any crisis when you walk in the boardroom. The lawyers say ‘you can’t say anything’ and the communications people are saying ‘we’ve got to say something’”.
Companies lying ‘practically unheard of’ in the UK
Skeptical journalists might be surprised at the claim that companies “don’t want to mislead people”. But asked how common it was for companies to lie to journalists, Yelland said: “It’s far less common than you would think. In fact, certainly in British business, it’s practically unheard of.”
At businesses listed on the stock exchange in particular, he said, “the accountability that puts the company under is huge”.
Instead, he said that “most crises in this country are exacerbated in the short term by people having to tell the truth”.
Yelland cited as an example the BBC’s recent crisis around the Huw Edwards scandal – a saga he and Lewis will be discussing on their podcast.
BBC director-general Tim Davie, Yelland said, “was hampered by not being able to find out the exact truth himself” and by a need to abide by confidentiality and duty of care requirements.
“If the BBC ever put out a statement that was not true then there would be absolutely hell to pay. The media, of course, don’t have that responsibility… there is no need for them to be 100% accurate, to say the least. So there is a playing field that’s not quite level in that kind of crisis.”
Episodes of the podcast will be recorded weekly, giving Yelland and Lewis an opportunity to go inside the latest crises. But as well as the Edwards scandal at the BBC, they say they hope to take a look at cases like the Nigel Farage, Coutts and Natwest imbroglio and the current uproar at the top of Spanish football.
‘We’re in the post-spin world’
Lewis said “the biggest change” since he and Yelland first spoke in 1998 – when Lewis was announced as the Queen’s press secretary and Yelland made editor of The Sun – was that now, “if you say something that isn’t spot on, you’ll be found out within minutes, seconds, through social media”.
Although Yelland’s time at The Sun coincided with Alastair Campbell’s doing communications at Downing Street, and Lewis himself did Campbell’s job for the Brown administration, Yelland said that “the one thing that this podcast is not about is spin”.
“Because you can’t spin,” he said. “We’re in the post-spin world. It doesn’t work. And it never worked anyway.
“If you’re in a company with legal obligations, or an NHS Trust, or a government department or a football club, or a charity like National Trust or wherever – you can’t spin. Even Alastair Campbell, he didn’t really spin. He just had a different version of the truth.”
Yelland did concede that “the whole of the political world is about spin”, but Lewis suggested the media played a large part in that.
Lewis said that when he was director of communications for Number 10, it was the Parliamentary lobby journalists, rather than him, who wanted a spin on a story: “Because that’s what gave them a competitive advantage…
“There was an awful lot of time and effort that went into spinning as opposed to trying to explain what was really happening. And that’s a challenge.
“There are some brilliant journalists in and around the House of Commons, but often they are driven by what their editors are wanting, which is they want a new angle on a current story.”
‘I’ve never met a CEO who thinks they can control the narrative about their business’
More broadly, Yelland said it was “a misconception, really, that the PR industry is there to deal with the press.
“If I think of an average day at Brunswick when I was there, the amount of time we would spend talking to journalists and thinking about that would be about 10%.”
He said that PR takes in how a company communicates itself to the world, its own employees and its shareholders, as well as the press.
Lewis added that where there was a relationship with the press, the goal was “mutual understanding”, which he defined as “both parties knowing what the other is trying to achieve and to be considerate of that”.
Some media critics might bristle at that goal. In his 2008 book Flat Earth News investigative journalist Nick Davies strongly criticised the relationship between PRs and journalists, and in particular time-starved reporters’ use of press releases as the basis for stories.
But Yelland stressed that journalists and PRs do not have the same aims.
“I read Nick Davies’ book, I know Nick really well,” he said. “And the reality is that every single major institution in the world has people that deal with the press… But they’re not on the same side.
“Alison Rose recently found out that journalists are not your friends, because she sat next to [BBC business editor] Simon Jack at dinner and told him stuff that she shouldn’t have done.”
“If you talk to any business journalist, the biggest problem they have is that there are big parts of the world that are just not interested, just don’t care,” he added. “So long live the public relations function that is there to help the media.”
Press Gazette asked whether it was healthy for society, though, if companies were able to set narratives about themselves in the media through friendly relationships with journalists.
“I’ve never met a CEO who thinks that they control the narrative, in any newspaper, about his or her own business,” Yelland said. “It just doesn’t work like that. It does not happen. The British press cannot be bribed. It cannot be influenced in these negative ways. The only thing you can do is make your case…
“There’s too many papers, it’s too competitive of a market.”
Even as the money in the news industry has declined, Yelland said the good news for journalists was that “what you say and do and write about organisations and individuals matters.
“In London and in Britain, it really does matter, because it influences the reputation of the organisation. It goes global, it goes all over the world. And that’s why it’s important.”
But of course, if journalists do want the money, they can just hop over to PR instead.
“If you’re good with words, which journalists are, and you’re able to put complex things into simple language, the market for your skills out there in the big wide world is bigger now than it ever was,” Yelland said.
“Business isn’t very good at speaking basic English.”
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