Finn Partners has teamed-up with the Big Tent Ideas Festival. Robert Kelsey, a Managing Partner at the global PR agency, explains why.

When it comes to politics, public relations has developed something of a tarnished reputation. Malcolm Tucker’s sweary rants in the television comedy In The Thick of It embody the discipline’s reputation for “controlling the message” – with both ministers and journalists mercilessly bullied into submission. While fiction, Tucker’s resemblance to the New Labour government’s Director of Communications Alastair Campbell was barely concealed, though he could have equally been modelled on Margaret Thatcher’s press “Rottweiler” Bernard Ingham. He’s best remembered for shoving aside BBC reporter John Sargeant outside the UK ambassador’s house in Paris on the day the Iron Lady’s grip on the premiership became fatally loosened. Yet – at the time – he was notorious for the off-the-record briefings attributed to a “government spokesperson”: a ruse that both the government, and those reporting on government, have become addicted to ever since.  

Add the proliferation of “lobbyists” in major political centres such as Washington and Brussels – focused on influencing regulations and policy for sometimes self-regarding reasons, usually while claiming it’s to protect the consumer – and it’s possible to paint PR as a dark art involving attempts to “seize the narrative”: to deceive, to manipulate – even to hide wrong-doing and corruption.  

Oh dear.

 It doesn’t kill questioning and analysis – it encourages it. It doesn’t manipulate feelings – it channels them. It doesn’t remove emotions – it enunciates them.  

But it doesn’t have to be this way and, in fact, mostly isn’t. PR at its worst can be exactly as described above. Yet PR at its best is exactly the opposite. The clue’s in the name – PUBLIC relations. This is about (or should be about) bringing people in, not cutting them out. It’s not just about how policy is sold but – equally – about how it’s formulated. 

PR specialists are the very people that should ensure voices are heard: helping shape the concerns and needs of those impacted by policy, as well as sourcing ideas and solutions. PR’s not a loud-hailer, shouting slogans to drown out critical thinking (“four legs good, two legs bad”). It’s a facilitator – the moderator of a two way mechanism. Its function is to receive as well as broadcast. To spot, shape and articulate the criticisms and failures, as well as help communicate the successes.  

Just look at its tools: customer surveys, focus groups, town hall meetings, round-tables, seminars – all are aimed at the vital need of listening when shaping policy.

Even when formulating proposals into policy, the core skills of the PR professional should be at the fore. We help research and write the whitepapers, which need to be fluent – aimed at explaining complex detail and concepts rather than obfuscation. And to do their job, whitepapers need to be well-launched: not just “flying kites” among the cognoscenti or raising “Aunt Sallys” to be destroyed in the media, but ensuring all those with a stake in the process are reached and informed.

Of course, the feedback needs to be evaluated properly, not just with a pre-determined goal in mind, but to assess – impartially – what’s worthy of action, as well as what’s worth re-examining and rethinking.

PR is (or at least should be) an important part of the democratic process: facilitating debate, encouraging creativity and developing and expressing sometimes ill-formed perceptions. It doesn’t kill questioning and analysis – it encourages it. It doesn’t manipulate feelings – it channels them. It doesn’t remove emotions – it enunciates them.  

And it’s this that makes Finn Partners so keen to partner with the Big Tent Ideas Festival. We love a good argument but we also think the role of PR is to generate ideas and innovative thinking. And to help articulate them both. It’s the Socratic tradition of questions-centred dialogue between individuals and competing groups. It’s the Hegelian notion of a thesis and anti-thesis clashing to produce a synthesis (generating both human progress as well as new tensions and further clashes). And it’s Jean Paul Sartre’s call to question everything and accept no given orthodoxy – a state of constant revolution and change.  

That makes PR, not the dark art of manipulating minds, but the bright light that shines into every recess. Which is exactly what the Big Tent aims to achieve. Hegel would definitely approve.

FINN Partners is a fully-integrated agency driving attention-earning results. We are a talented mix of researchers, strategists, designers, technologists, content specialists and campaigners in 19 cities on three continents.

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