Balance and emphasis
15 September, 2005

Ian Parker, Head of Strategic Communications, NLGN
PR Week

Those who attack ‘spin’ in politics often date it from the arrival of New Labour in the UK and the beginning of the Clinton era in the US. In truth, ‘spin’ – or what might be termed the tactical use of emphasis in political communications – has been around as long as the Tuscan hills. Well, at least since Machiavelli offered his many words of wisdom to the Florentine Medici.

Either way, ‘spin’ has been back in the news of late, with the furore surrounding former No.10 communications adviser, Tim Allan’s role in John Humphreys ending up carpeted by his BBC bosses. With Mr Allan having leaked the contents of an after-dinner speech made by the presenter, the whole interface of media-government relations has had the political classes and chatterati nicely warmed up for another party conference season and the Parliament beyond.

Of course, one can’t possibly write about spin at the moment without referring to the cricket and England’s remarkable win over Australia. Some have seen this success in terms of individual heroes, such as Flintoff and Pieterson, facing down Warne: the best ‘emphasiser’ in the history of the game. It strikes me however, that the Ashes victory has been much more about solid teamwork, with the squad singing from the same Jerusalem-filled hymn sheet.

Maybe it has something to do with organisational confidence. As the test series unfolded, each and every England player appeared to acquire a clearer view of their role in achieving overall victory. With the sort of individual-cum-team development that many in public/political communications might find unimaginable (whether you trust colleagues or not!), there are deep lessons to be learnt about knitting together myriad characters, knowledge and skills into one aim and its subsequent success.

Alongside this, victory for England also came through knowing when to deploy the most appropriate tactic – another key factor in successful ongoing communications. In cricket like politics there are two obvious ways of dealing with difficult balls. You can either swing the bat in the hope of smacking the offending article into the long grass – the Botham method. Or you can adopt a calmer stance, batting yourself in and allowing some tame but tempting deliveries to pass you by – a la Geoffrey Boycott.

At a real risk of sounding the cod-management theorist, England’s ability to mix such approaches as and when required – not to mention some exceptional attack-dog bowling – also has much to teach communications professionals. In short, to know when to do the seemingly more radical stuff and when you should concentrate on more pedestrian activities. Still, judging this balance is only half of the story and suffice to say, the rest is all about knowing when and how best to do your emphasising.