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Jon Aarons/Jane Cumming interview

By The Drum | Administrator

June 20, 2002 | 9 min read

The IPR Scotland’s new chair Jane Cumming welcomes the industry to the first ever Scottish PR Awards.

As the great and the good of Scottish PR were ironing shirts and pulling on their smartest suits in readiness for Scotland’s first ever PR Awards ceremony, the top brass of the IPR and IPR Scotland, Jon Aarons and Jane Cumming respectively, were sipping coffee in a Glasgow hotel reflecting on the effects the recent Jo Moore/Martin Sixsmith/Stephen Byers debacle would inevitably have on the all too often under-fire image of the PR industry.

Be it Scotland, England or even the US, governmental media advisors, for some reason, seem to acquire a sort of celebrity status in the eyes of press and television journalists. Their actions and words often merit more media interest than those of their boss, be it Henry McLeish or Tony Blair.

It is a status that both Aarons and Cumming feel is undeserved and ultimately dangerous.

“The public don’t fall for spin-doctoring any more, they see right through it,” says Aarons, president of the IPR and a partner at Financial Dynamics. “It didn’t work for Stephen Byers and Martin Sixsmith and they have all been brought down by it. PR people who don’t operate in a professional way and get it wrong, Jo Moore being the classic example, will be undone. If you don’t give the public enough credit they will see through it. What the public appreciates is openness, transparency and accountability.

“People tend to exaggerate the influence PR people can actually have. Any single journalist has a great deal more influence than the average PR person does, as they are not expected to be accountable in the same way as we are. I know of plenty of financial and political journalists with maverick opinions who are completely free to express them with no recourse.”

Cumming, who has recently taken over as chair of the IPR Scotland and is to set up her own PR consultancy after being at NoSWA: “There is often more attention paid to the media advisor of the government nowadays than to the actual government. It is completely out of kilter with reality in terms of the public’s interest because most people out there don’t give a stuff about who the media advisor is.”

Inevitably, it has been bad advice from the media advisor that has ultimately led to the downfall of senior political figures – think Henry McLeish/Peter McMahon and Stephen Byers/Martin Sixsmith. As a trainee journalist I recall being told on more than one occasion to simply report the story, never to become involved in it or, even worse, actually become the story. So, why are people such as McMahon and Sixsmith, both vastly experienced, ignoring such a fundamental rule?

“Journalists are always very interested in what other journalists are doing,” says Cumming. “Therefore, they always put them higher on the news agenda than they would usually be. They are equally obsessed with what PR people are doing because they are only one step removed from them and there has always been a certain amount of, not jealousy, but mutual prejudice between journalists and PRs. PR people are reasonably well paid, whereas many reporters on regional papers are not so well paid.”

Aarons, who in the Eighties worked for Dr David Owen, adds: “I think there is an exaggerated view that PR people get paid stacks of money for doing very little. Many PRs receive a modest salary comparable to journalists. I think the reason PRs merit so much press attention is because of the proximity between the two disciplines. There is scepticism of people who can perhaps come between the journalist and the story. I suppose PR people can fall into that category. Many journalists set themselves up as being the guardians of truth and in actual fact many PRs see themselves in that light. Many PRs started their careers in journalism and still hold those values dear.

“You could argue that the media is too obsessed with politics and there is a disproportionate amount of political coverage in the press and on TV with regard to how it impinges on people’s lives. In the newspapers today there is an obsession with what Paul Boateng, the first black cabinet member, has done in the past, when most people are interested in finding out about the past lives of football and soap stars.”

Cumming says that political coverage is also out of kilter with what is of interest to the majority of people.

She says: “If you go the Royal Mile and stand near the Scottish Parliament you would be forgiven for thinking that they are discussing the most important things in the world, judging by the amount of media buzzing around. But walk a few minutes down the road and stand at a bus stop and you will see that the ordinary person is not that interested in politics. They are talking about their bins not being emptied last week or the football. In the past I have advised politicians to go and sit in a doctor’s surgery or a pub not filled with their pals to get amongst the population and find out what the reality of life in Scotland actually is.”

The reality is that the Scottish PR industry is relatively buoyant, with the number of IPR Scotland members now topping 500. But while sectors such as financial PR are not only stagnant, but practically non-existent, other sectors such as consumer and, particularly, public sector PR are booming.

Cumming says: “Public sector PR has grown massively over the last few years. When I moved to Inverness with NoSWA there were three PR people. Now, within six years, there is a group of around 25 people.”

The reason for this significant increase in in-house communications teams is, according to Aarons, due to the vast changes in the infrastructure of local government and also the need to be increasingly accountable to the public.

He says: “The growth in public sector PR is a by-product of deregulation and increased competition between these organisations, so they have to be more up-front with their marketing communications. But also a lot of it is about the changes which have been going on in local services and local government.

“Those changes need to be explained to the general public and there is also a rise in expectation of accountability and transparency. That is why every public sector authority or private sector organisation that is providing a public service now recognises the value of having good communications professionally organised.”

Aarons also believes that Scotland’s lack of financial PR specialists is a problem to which no quick fixes are apparent.

He says: “The financial PR market is in London. Edinburgh, I think, is the second largest financial market in Europe, bigger than Frankfurt, so it plays an important part, but I am afraid that it is still the case that financial PR is concentrated in London. That is because the people we primarily deal with are the financial journalists, analysts and investment bankers in the City. London is becoming a centre for European financial PR as well.”

That said, PR is booming outside the English capital and the rate of growth in PR has been faster than that of advertising, with many breakaways being formed over the last two years and one-man bands handling significant pieces of business.

Cumming says: “Inevitably in PR, advertising, design, and so on, people break away. People do a job, they learn and develop and decide they could be doing it for themselves and break away. I think that is healthy. I have always worked in-house, but I have always thought it good when people move on to other jobs. It creates new entities, which is stimulating for the whole PR market.”

Aarons is also pleased that the Scottish PR industry has reached such a size that it can now sustain its own awards scheme and operate relatively autonomously from the national IPR. It is also allowing the IPR to address the real issues its members need to address.

“The amount of growth throughout the UK now allows the nations and regions to operate much more autonomously. We were a relatively small, kind of clique organisation when I joined the IPR some twelve years ago, but what has changed a lot in the last five years is that we have tried to understand what sort of support organisation our members need. We have become much more customer focused and more modern in our approach. We provide an enormous range of services online, we have a very good website with 1,000 pages that we didn’t have three years ago, which enables people to benefit from it wherever they are. A lot of our work is not so much about clubiness and rubbing shoulders, but it is much more hard-headed and practical. What our members want is learning and we have put in a lot of work building an infrastructure. There are now 20 recognised degree courses, we have our own education products, which include a diploma and an advanced certificate, for people coming into PR who want a to have a real foundation of training. Then we have a programme of training events that are expanding away from London to the centres, which want it. Jane and her team in Scotland are working on their own training initiatives and developing excellence, which enables people to measure, record and get recognition for their own development. There is a lot more focus on doing the things people want us to do.”

And what of the future for Scotland? Cumming expects more breakaways: “One thing about PR people is that they get bored quite quickly. They are constantly looking for something different.”

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