Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Public Relations Disasters: A How-To guide.

Creating a truly unnecessary PR disaster requires skill and work. It is not a task which should be undertaken by the mere amateur, or those unprepared to labour long and hard to achieve their aims.

Some people have a natural gift and are hit by moments of genius: Gerald Ratner all but destroyed his own company with a few well-chosen words describing his products as crap.

Others have to plan. King’s College London is an example of best practice in this regard. In the spirit of the business school case study, I have boiled down their campaign to its essentials.

1) Assemble a small team to identify clearly what you do – teaching and research – and then work out a careful programme to undermine it. Firing people who are regarded as the height of excellence in their field makes for a good start.

2) Make sure your efforts have as wide an effect as possible. Getting rid of a historian or a philosopher shows willing, but is half-hearted and inefficient. The true professional will choose people whose work crosses disciplines, to guarantee the maximum impact.

An ideal choice here is (say) a palaeographer, whose labours are important for historians, people in literature, foreign languages, classics, theology and archaeology. If your choice effectively abolishes a 500-year-old discipline for the sake of a small efficiency saving, so much the better.

Equally useful would be a computational linguist, whose work affects others in software, philosophy, robotics, neurology, engineering and cognitive psychology.

3) Make sure the people you choose are some of the most eminent in their field and, wherever possible, foreigners. 2) and 3) in combination will guarantee protests from around the world in a wide range of disciplines.

4) Be careful not to show sensitivity or remorse about the fact that you are throwing people out of a job. In the policy document you issue to accompany the decision, make sure there is no believable expression of regret. This might make you seem human or caring, which is something to be avoided at all costs. Emphasise that you are motiviated primarily by money, not scholarship.

5) Remember also that you are talking to people whose business is words, and who value a well-turned sentence. They have spent years learning how to use language, and to communicate clearly. So ensure you address them in the worst and most inappropriate sort of language you can manage, written by people who are scarcely literate.

The dexterous use of corporate managerialese here will get across the idea that you really do not give a damn about them, or about what they do. This will successfully add insult to injury, and invite ridicule from the outside world.

6) Try and come up with a simple catch-phrase which instantly sums up all you stand for: “subcritical strategic disinvestment” was a stroke of pure inspiration, so much so that it instantly replaced King's official motto and is now the phrase by which it is known throughout the world.

7) Mark the document “confidential.” You know it will leak onto the internet in a matter of hours, and it is a brilliantly easy way of making yourself seem secretive, insular and afraid of scrutiny.

8) Do your best to ensure that people think that any consultation and appeals process is unlikely to make the slightest bit of difference. Governments developed the fake consultation as a way of eroding public respect and trust. Learn from their insights.

If you follow all of these stages, you are well under way to achieving your aims. The true adept, however, will now add a few delicate flourishes, like a painter adding that final touch of the brush. This is what distinguishes a real artist from a simple amateur.

9) Time your announcement to coincide with the publication of your annual accounts, so that the contrast between the amount of money you are trying to save, and the amount you spend on administration, comes across clearly. Better still, buy part of a palace as well. This will underline where your priorities lie.

10) Get one of your number to sign a collective letter bemoaning the assault on the subjects that you yourself are attacking. There is nothing quite like adding a hint of hypocrisy to the mixture.

11) Sit back in total silence. If you must say something, do so in the comments section of some on-line magazine to emphasise you are not taking objections seriously. If possible, include some dismissive remarks about protesters based in other countries to stress that you do not care for anyone else’s opinion.

12) Above all, do not listen to anyone -- inside or outside your organisation -- who wants you to change course. If you feel like calling in experienced PR people to help out, resist the temptation. You have a plan: stick to it. A reputation for arrogant rigidity will be the icing on the cake.

-- Iain Pears


  1. you forgot calling in the riot police. that's always a nice touch.

  2. Genius. Thank you.

  3. Brilliant and many thanks for your great LRB piece but you missed:

    (13) Consider making one of the main architects of the reform someone with a professional interest in the subjects in which strategic new appointments are proposed to accompany the redundancies elsewhere.

    (14) Be sure to propose making the people whom you are not sacking apply for their own jobs - that way you can alienate them as well.

  4. Possibly the best thing I've read on this; WHAT an own goal!