Perception is everything: how politicians, public servants and corporate bosses learn the art of spin

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 4 April 2018 in Inside Politics

Ex-Ryanair PR man Alan Clark’s slogan, ‘perception is the only reality’, is Don Draper with a dash of George Orwell

The art of spin: Malcolm Tucker from political satire The Thick of It and tabloid newspapers - Image credit: Holyrood

He’s the slick PR man behind Ryanair’s attention-seeking fake news stories – and now he advises government ministers, councils and public bodies on the art of spin.

Alan Clark was the airline’s UK press officer for 21 years, and devised such dastardly bluffs as charging a euro for the toilets, standing-room-only flights and sacking costly co-pilots.

The newspapers were all duly taken in, or at least pretended to be for a shock headline about the airline that everyone hates to love.

Clark’s slogan, ‘perception is the only reality’, is Don Draper with a dash of George Orwell.

His current role as a communications trainer at Pink Elephant Communications puts him into contact with the PR firm’s impressive roster of clients, including the Scottish Government and its agencies, COSLA, Calmac, ScotRail and numerous councils and quangos.

Pink Elephant advised former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill on his media strategy ahead of the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al Megrahi, and they don’t just coach politicians on their external communications: one minister asked Pink Elephant for help to convince Alex Salmond to spend £8m on aid for Malawi.

Clark learned a lot from Ryanair’s “charismatic and controversial” chief executive Michael O’Leary.

“He had an idiosyncratic way of dealing with the media, and dealing with the whole world of communications,” he told a public sector procurement conference at the Radisson Blu in Glasgow.

“We got some wacky ideas, like ‘let’s charge people one euro to use the toilets’. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) would never let it happen, but we put a story out and in my office, I have a big pile of cuttings marked ‘toilet’.

“We thought, ‘what can we do next?’ I said, ‘I know, let’s say that there aren’t enough seats on 737 aircraft, so let’s remove the seats and let’s all hang from straps’.

“The CAA would never allow it, but we put the story out and I have another big pile of cuttings marked ‘straps’.

“And finally, pilots are very expensive, with six-figure salaries. ‘Why do we need two in a cockpit? Let’s take them out.’

“Of course, somebody said, ‘What do we do if something happens to him?’.

“We promptly said, ‘We will have a specially trained member of the cabin crew to step in’.

“It was never going to happen, it wouldn’t be allowed, but I got another big pile of cuttings.”

Clark urges his clients to keep their message simple and “declare war on unnecessary negatives” such as Nixon’s “I am not a crook” and Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman”.

The Sun newspaper writes for seven-year-olds, and if you look at the style it makes perfect sense, simple paragraphs,” he says.

His pitch includes a clip of BBC presenter Charlie Stayt insisting Clive Lewis’s resignation from the Labour shadow cabinet was “a disaster” for Jeremy Corbyn, prompting the Labour leader to reply, “It’s not a disaster”.

“The BBC grabbed that and cut ’n’ pasted the headline: ‘Lewis resignation not a disaster, says Corbyn’.

“Prime Minister Theresa May was asked by the BBC reporter Laura Kuenssberg, ‘What about the difficulties you are facing in your own party over Brexit?’

“She said, ‘Laura, I am not a quitter’. What are you thinking? She’s a quitter.”

It would be naive to think politics is immune from distortion, but the public would like to think that political reality is grounded in incontrovertible facts.

Perception may be the only reality when you’re selling budget flights, but it could raise an eyebrow when it’s applied to public policy.

“I would have been shocked if I’d heard that when I was working at the Daily Mail,” admits former political editor Alan Roden, who had his own shift in perception when he became Scottish Labour’s head of communications under Kezia Dugdale.

“When you see what it’s like behind the scenes and deal with crisis PR, there are often occasions when you know a simple fact could hurt you, so the public perception has to be managed.

“You can try and turn it into a positive – or turn it into a negative for somebody else.”

He admits Labour had a tough time when Nicola Sturgeon claimed Dugdale told her “Labour would stop opposing independence” in a private telephone conversation.

“Kez was absolutely adamant that that is not what was said, but that wouldn’t stop people writing the story,” says Roden.

“We very quickly turned it into a question about whether the First Minister should be revealing private conversations.

“Within about 18 hours it became a story about the First Minister’s judgement, rather than Kez, and it backfired in a way that I don’t think she expected as there was a real anger that the First Minister had demeaned her office.

“The perception was that this was a story about the First Minister’s judgement, rather than the reality of what was or was not said.”

Some imperceptive politicians and commentators also got their own reality check when they gleefully mocked Labour for poaching a journalist from a right-leaning publication, only to be reminded that Nicola Sturgeon’s current head of communications is former Daily Mail political editor Stuart Nicolson.

Ruth Davidson’s director of communications Eddie Barnes is another Daily Mail alumnus, suggesting the polemical paper is the ideal nursery for agenda-setting political communicators.

“Every political journalist does a professional job regardless of their own views,” says Roden, who first joined the Labour Party when he 15.

“I wrote articles that presented a different view to my personal beliefs, and Stuart would have done the same. I certainly took issue with some articles written by other journalists, particularly some of the opinion pieces, but I was a reporter writing about politics, and I tried to approach it in as fair a way as possible, always giving every side the right to reply, which is important.

“I have met people who work at the Daily Mail who have voted Labour, Tory, SNP, Yes, No, and just because they work for the Daily Mail, [it] doesn’t mean that they personally subscribe to the views of the newspaper.

“I would like to think that Kez, Nicola and Ruth would all say that having former political editors as their chief spin doctors improved their fortunes professionally.

“I think the Daily Mail should be quite proud that their former political editors have gone on to work for political parties with the skills they learned at the paper.

“I understand that not everyone likes the Daily Mail’s political views but there’s a reason leaders appoint political journalists – they understand what makes a news story.”

Geoff Aberdein, former chief of staff in Alex Salmond’s government, did not come from a journalism background but was taught the art of political communications from Alex Salmond and his unflappable communications chief Kevin Pringle.

Like Clark and Roden, he learned that the trick to controlling the debate is to sidestep the negative and move the debate on to a positive message.

“Alex Salmond and Kevin Pringle were absolute experts at that – I was taught by the best,” he says.

He agrees that perception can be the reality in politics, particularly when you’re faced with a tricky moral dilemma.

“The perception that people have of a government, a particular policy or an announcement is sometimes more important than the reality,” he says.

“The initial perception of the release of Al Megrahi, which I was involved in, was one of global outrage.

“We worked tremendously hard to change that perception to demonstrate that the release on compassionate grounds was a humane decision and totally in line with Scots Law.”

Third-party endorsements from public figures like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu were vital in shifting the perception from outrage to compassion, he says.

But should politicians take another leaf out of the Ryanair playbook and sell the public a blatant red herring to grab the headlines?

“In politics and public policy, you have to be extremely careful as you are rightly held to the highest possible standard,” says Aberdein.

“The ‘£350 million a week for the NHS’ Brexit bus has annoyed more voters than just about anything else in the Brexit campaign and it keeps coming back to haunt them.

“Diversionary tactics and aspirational messages happen in political campaigning all the time. However, if a central offering of a successful campaign doesn’t come to pass, you will be faced with [a] significant public backlash.”

Salmond faced regular opposition accusations of spinning false stories, such as the EU legal advice that never was or the oil projections in ‘Scotland’s Future’ that collapsed dismally within months.

Aberdein admits the former FM’s questionable claim that he had sought legal advice on an independent Scotland’s EU status “was a pretty difficult time for the government”.

“When you’re up against the perception that you have been caught out, whether rightly or wrongly, it’s imperative to move the debate on and refocus it to a position where you can win the particular argument or at least sneak a score draw,” he says.

“At its core, that particular debate centred on whether Scotland would be accepted into the European Union within the timeframe set out.

“So, we drew attention to and emphasised the contributions from external European legal advisers and academics in a bid to move the debate on to the actual substance of the matter.

“In these type of situations, it is vital you don’t spend too much time arguing on your opponents’ terms and move the debate quickly on to more comfortable ground.”

He admits that ‘Scotland’s Future’ was a mixture of costed policy, projection and aspiration but said it stands up well against the dearth of official advice from the UK Government ahead of the Brexit referendum.

“At least ‘Scotland’s Future’ offered a substantial programme to be analysed,” he says.

“However, I don’t think we adequately articulated the point that people would have the choice to elect any government they liked after independence. The majority of options in ‘Scotland’s Future’ merely reflected the SNP’s priorities.

“The problem with forecasting too far in advance is that nobody knows for sure what the long-term future holds. The Scottish Government were using official Oil & Gas UK figures as the basis of their forecasts and even David Cameron said there would be a £200 billion oil boom if Scotland voted No. Of course, shortly after, the oil price plummeted.”

Aberdein said he didn’t have too much trouble setting the agenda with the first SNP Government, first landslide majority and historic independence referendum, while his successors can often find themselves on the back foot defending a record of 11 years in government.

“The current team are very talented and my advice to them would be to be more proactive, choose carefully the ground they want to fight on and spend less time reacting,” he says.

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