Friday, 26 March 2010

On the Dark Arts

After labouring mightily, the powers at King’s London have finally spoken, and launched a mouse onto the world. As part of an article in the Guardian on 23rd March, an unnamed spokesman announced that

“The college management deplores the reckless campaign orchestrated to upset the consultation process by undermining the college's reputation. The college has conducted the consultation processes in good faith and believes that the procedures applied in each instance are fair and transparent.”

I had expected something much better than that. It is a half-hearted response, which sounds more like a manager stamping his foot than a remark crafted by someone who truly understands Public Relations.

Certainly, it is not indicative of a serious fight back. rather it seems more like a holding statement, designed to maintain the line without upping the stakes. this, curiously, is quite hopeful.

You do not win hearts and minds by sounding self-righteously hurt, you do not use the conspiracy gambit (the orchestrated campaign part) unless you are really running out of ammunition, not when it is so patently untrue.

Nor do you lay yourself open with remarks like “the college believes the procedures are fair and transparent,” when it is clear that the college does nothing of the sort; only the management does, and that is not the same thing.

And after years of politicians and bankers and governments cheerfully acquitting themselves of any wrong-doing no matter what the circumstances, declarations of management happiness with management policies carry little weight with the public. Such statements instantly raise suspicions; the wise PR man now avoids them like the plague.

"Transparent" is also a no-no, as overuse has changed its meaning in recent years from "clear" to "deliberately opaque." Only would-be technocrats now use the term, and the object of PR is to get the targets to identify with your side, not to alienate them.

Exaggeration and hyperbole are all very well, indeed PR could scarcely exist without them, but they have to be used cautiously and effectively. Referring to “reckless campaigns” is poor stuff indeed.

It is a bit like saying Northern Rock would have been perfectly fine if only people hadn’t tried to get their money back. But the run on the bank was caused by its weakness, not the other way round. It is the same with King’s: the damage was caused by the policies, not the criticism.

Finally there is the laziness of “orchestrated.” I think not. Orchestras are organised groups playing the same tune with a conductor. Trying to conjure up images of the hidden hand manipulating in the darkness, in a manner reminiscent of a 1950s spy film, is fumbling. Is King's now suggesting the nine MPs who have signed a motion urging a rethink are being orchestrated? That the reach of the humanities is so great it can stretch into the house of Commons and bend politicians to its will?

Would that academics were capable of such organisation. Anyone who knows such people at all are well aware that trying to get them to stick to a common line on anything is a bit like herding sheep. That is why academia is such fun, and why the current methods of the King’s management will only work by strangling the life force out of the profession.

-- Iain Pears


  1. Surely you mean 'like herding cats'. When sheep err and stray and follow the devices and desires of their own hearts they generally do so in a concerted fashion, not singulatim ac seriatim.

  2. Brecht put it well:

    The Solution

    After the uprising of the 17th June
    The Secretary of the Writers Union
    Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
    Stating that the people
    Had forfeited the confidence of the government
    And could win it back only
    By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
    In that case for the government
    To dissolve the people
    And elect another?

  3. How much are the senior management being paid?
    If it is the hundreds of thousands of pounds I have heard they should have been able to keep their employees happy enough not to take action

    Pete Friend (Retired)

  4. Don't you mean 'herding cats'? Sheep are very easy to herd because they are herd animals. Academics, as you point out, are not. This is both a strength and a weakness - often they react with all the community of a shoal of piranha (eg. over fee rises). In this case - and at Leeds, UCL and other 'Top Unis' (as 'The Times' calls them) - the threat of 'finding ourselves on the pavement' brings us all together with FE and other parts of our sector, including schools. But this is the only the beginning, so we must stick together! In solidarity, Patrick Ainley (Prof of Training and Education, School of Education and Training University of Greenwich and co-author with Martin Allen of 'Lost Generation? New strategies for youth and education' (Continuum last month). (I spoke at your 27th Feb Teach In.)