Something that has always fascinated me is the relationship between people – of whatever status, be they ordinary members of the public, celebrities, agents, PR spokesmen, CEOs and/or chairman of public bodies or business organisations or (wash my mouth out) even politicians – and the media in all its forms.
Perhaps I should add that I wish to avoid getting too profound here because I’m nervous that, in trying to cover all angles simultaneously, I’ll soon reveal my intelligence quotient as being inadequate to the task – I’m really trying to address the tensions and ultimately the difficulties (not least the attendant incongruities) as people try to deal with ‘the world at large’ when behind their own scenes all may not be quite as they would wish.
Let me give a hypothetical example:
You’re the chairman of an organisation about which a highly negative story has appeared in the media: e.g. a FTSE that has been accused of systematic tax evasion or illegal activity, or perhaps a medical health authority that has been using dead children’s body parts for life-saving operations without first gaining the parents’ permission.
Hitherto (historically) you and/or your PR department or press office have been in the habit of putting out ‘positive’ stories about how well your organisation has been doing, but this is a different kettle of fish. You’re ‘door-stepped’ as you get out of your car in the morning as you arrive at your office, or you are advised that, in order to control the pressure being aimed at you, you must appear at a press conference in order to say something for public consumption.
It is a natural human instinct to (actively or passively) assess the situation thus: (1) what exactly is the accusation being made against the organisation, and then (2) what is the least fault to which you can admit, or alternatively, what ‘stonewalling’ statement can you make that will either ‘buy you time’ and/or make the allegation or problem go away?
After all, market confidence (for a FTSE company) is vital – being ‘guilty’ of tax evasion or illegality could materially influence shareholder attitudes and ultimately the share price – and, for a public health authority, public/media confidence is equally important in terms of fending off accusations of negligence/incompetence or even misuse of public (taxpayer) funds.
Thus we see chairman of such organisations seeking to appear in public as quietly confident, assuring everyone that these accusations are utterly false … everything the organisation has ever done has always been above board and totally legal … the situation is totally under control and being dealt with as per normal procedures and protocols …
Even – behind the scenes – if it isn’t.
Then at some point the proverbial can start to hit the fan – if it hasn’t already – when it becomes apparent that your public statement(s) are or were nothing more than a ‘holding’ measure designed to make the problem go away, at least temporarily.
Almost invariably, if the media story develops (as often it does, and as the media hounds know too well) your initial statement may well be played back later, to your own embarrassment because it makes both you and your organisation look devious, two-faced and manipulating.
The experience can be galling because at the time you were only acting – or thought you were – in the best interests of your organisation.
There’s another fraught aspect to dealings between people (and organisations) and the media. Quite often, initially when someone – deliberately or otherwise – become exposed to the media it may be in a positive light and therefore flattering. The experience is enjoyable and maybe even helpful to their career. Other media opportunities emerge and perhaps they also work to their advantage. And then suddenly some scandal or incident occurs which, from a media perspective, impacts up them – then it becomes a matter of how they react to it. Can they restore their originally favourable image … or will they become ‘fixed’ in the public’s (media’s) mind as a wrong ‘un and/or loser?
Stuff happens, as they say.
Over the weekend I was transfixed by the position of Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal as his team won the FA Cup Final on Saturday and then – a matter of an hour or so later – the widely-circulated rumour of past months that he was ‘dead meat’, and that the waiting-in-the-wings Jose Mourinho would be taking over within the next few days, became ‘breaking news’ on the BBC, albeit on a ‘we understand that …’ basis rather than that it was 100%, nailed-on, official.
Apart from anything else, Manchester United itself was saying nothing – however (this a media staple practice) it was being taken as read that this deafening official silence was tantamount to confirmation of the story’s fundamental truth.
Almost immediately – I think for whatever reason that I was listening to Radio Five Live’s 606 programme at the time although I cannot be 100% certain – there was a perfect example of the ‘tension’ to which I’ve been referring that exists between people inside or connected to an organisation and the juggernaut ‘outsider’ that is the media.
The programme presenters began discussing the ‘unconfirmed’ news of van Gaal’s departure and Mourinho’s arrival which, they stated or implied, was a BBC ‘exclusive’, courtesy of their sports correspondent Dan Roan.
He duly took part in the discussion, laying out his revelation in restrained, measured terms, being respectful to van Gaal and yet quite certain in his theme that he understood the incumbent Manchester United manager was on his way out this week and would be replaced by Mourinho (regarded as a ‘Marmite figure’ by many United fans).
Suddenly it was announced that legendary former United player Paddy Crerand was ‘on the line’ and ready to comment upon the BBC’s ‘exclusive’.
Paddy had plainly worked up a significant amount of steam and indignantly criticised the BBC and reporter Dan Roan. He stated unequivocally that the entire ‘story’ was total garbage.
Conclusive proof of this was that he’d just been outside the dressing room and seen van Gaal and executive vice-chairman of Manchester United Ed Woodward embraced each other affectionately in the wake of United’s FA Cup victory.
He then challenged Dan Roan personally about his supposed story and sources, repeatedly asking him “Who told you? Where did you hear this from?” and, when Roan and the other BBC presenters mentioned the principle of journalists protecting their sources, used Roan’s refusal to name his sources as a stick with which to beat him over the head.
In short, Crerand seemed as certain as certain could be that van Gaal would be in charge of Manchester United as the club went into next season and he attacked the BBC for its suggestion otherwise.
I wonder how Mr Crerand is feeling this morning as the news that van Gaal is departing become front-page news across the world’s media …
Those who missed Paddy’s tour de force rant over the weekend might like to catch up with it via this link (go to the bottom of the page to ‘activate’ it) – CRERAND DENIES VAN GAAL IS LEAVING
As a postscript on the way the media works, it is also interesting to note that today most newspapers are featuring stories about how the Manchester United players hated the van Gaal regime and his boring football style etc. These ‘facts’ have presumably been widely known and circulated for months within journalistic circles …. but, of course, never overtly put to van Gaal himself because the journos were scared of stomping all over their professional ‘treasured insider relations’ with van Gaal whereby he could feed them (and they could find out) all sorts of interesting stories about Manchester United’s progress generally with which to fill their newspaper’s sports pages.
See here for a typical example of what I mean, posted by Daniel Taylor today on the website of – THE GUARDIAN