More spinned against than spinning - what the 90s taught us about Public Relations.
Speech given by Simon Lewis OBE Hon FCIPR, Vice Chair EMEA, FTI Consulting (IPR President 1997)
It is a great privilege to be asked to address this special and timely anniversary event. Thank you to the Chartered Institute for inviting me.
Public Relations has travelled a long way in the last 75 years, as indeed has the Institute.
It has travelled even further and faster in the last 40 years which is the span of my career in Public Relations. To show how far it has travelled, when I went to see the Head of the Oxford University Appointments Committee as a new graduate in 1981 to ask about a career in Public Relations there was a long pause and he said sonorously, “No one goes into Public Relations until they have tried and failed at something else first!”
So I think I was one of the pioneers being a graduate trainee entering the consultancy business directly, working for the late, great Richard Sermon and Peter Chadlington as they built out Shandwick in 1983. Throughout my career, I have been a huge beneficiary of the growth of the public relations industry and, in particular, the in-house sector which was very much a backwater in the 1980s.
I first became aware of the Institute through the work of the City & Financial group in the late 1980s which I chaired, and was introduced to the scope and work of the Institute, I met a lot of very interesting and committed individuals. We ran a very well regarded speaker programme and became the institutional voice of City P.R. So when Rosemary Brooke, the Institute’s President, came to see me in my office at Nat West in 1996, to persuade me to run for the Presidency in 1997, I was both flattered and excited. Peter Walker, the other candidate, was extremely gracious about losing and, quite rightly, went on to become a distinguished President in 1998. He was followed by two outstanding practitioners, Alison Clarke, and Ian Wright, who I am proud to say is my longest standing friend in public relations.
It was an exciting time to be President, at the cusp of significant political and social change. My presidential themes were transparency and accountability, which I thought should apply not just to the Institute, but the wider industry and the business community. I had a great Council to chair including luminaries such as Anne Gregory, who we will hear from next, Paul Barber, who has deservedly received an OBE, and Claire Parsons a Co-founder of Lansons and here today. I also had an outstanding DG in John Lavelle, who I am delighted to see is also here today looking hale and hearty.
Looking back now, there were a number of broad influences which were shaping the perception of Public Relations in the 1990s.
First the rise of New Labour and its subsequent landslide victory at the May 1997 election helped to create a narrative that “Spin was everything”. That the success of New Labour was simply a matter of slick and effective public relations, led by Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson.
This of course was not the case. The landslide victory marked a significant shift in the views of the country and led to a period of 13 years of Labour Government. As an industry, we probably were not as effective as we could have been at pushing back on the narrative that spin was synonymous with superficiality.
The second major development which I saw close up when I became The Queen’s first Communications Secretary at Buckingham Palace in 1998 was the influence and practices of the tabloid press which had a corrosive influence on the way the public saw our industry. The death of The Princess of Wales and the tabloid reaction to it, the instance of phone hacking, and the tabloid editors view that if they had a Royal story, however erroneous, it was fair game. This all had a corrosive influence on the way the public saw the media and by inference, public relations.
When I took up my role at the Palace, this was seen in some quarters as a controversial appointment. The idea was that I had been brought in to simply spin the monarchy and The Royal family. This of course could not have been further from the truth, as a considered decision had been made to appoint a strategic communications expert to come in on secondment. This did not stop The Daily Mail on the very first day of my appointment putting a front page photograph of The Queen holding a football, with an article along the lines of this spin has gone too far.
I certainly did not smile when I turned up on my very first day at Buckingham Palace to announce myself as the new Communications Secretary to The Queen. There was a delay at the police box before the policemen said to me “Does that mean you are here to mend the phones?”
Some of the practitioners who sold stories to the tabloid press in the 90s achieved some sort of celebrity status themselves and that fuelled the perception in some corners that Public Relations was a very dark art. Despite the fact that these kind of practitioners were a tiny minority of people but perhaps the industry did not have enough self-confidence to make it clear that there was a huge difference between effective professional communications and the kind of ‘trading of stories’ that were taking place.
The third major development was the rise of the internet. There were only 100 million internet users in 1998 and limited use of websites among corporations, but it was beginning to create another channel of information for audiences. This has now become a global phenomenon.
So much has changed since that era and I think that the industry now stands taller and prouder than ever before. Our professional standards, thanks to the excellent work of Anne Gregory and others, now put us in a completely different position. The establishment of the Institute as a Chartered institute, I also think was a huge step forward and great credit to all those who were involved in making that happen.
We have also seen an industry which has matured. There are enormously successful international communications consultancies now. Firms like Brunswick, Teneo, my own company FTI and Finsbury. From a personal point of view, it has been a pleasure to see how the in-house function has developed from essentially something completely reactive to a function which generally has a seat around the boardroom table in public companies and large organisations.
Now, here we are in 2023 and our biggest challenge is to remain both relevant to our clients and our colleagues in a digital, “always on” world which is so different from the 1990s, but equally challenging and equally full of opportunity.
So when I look back now on what the 90s taught us about Public Relations, I see it as a crucial turning point. It was the starting point for the discipline of Public Relations becoming central not just to companies, but institutions like the monarchy and other organisations. Viewed in this way, the controversy around Public Relations and the perception of it as a ‘dark art’ was a compliment, because people were acknowledging the importance of its influence. It gained recognition as a discipline which was crucial to a successful business, or a well-functioning organisation.
There is also a lesson that no industry stands still. We have really come of age in the past twenty-five years, and it is satisfying to see that strategic communications has only grown in stature and scope. Whilst it is important to look back to reflect on how much has been achieved, we should also look to the future - the fact that so many talented young people continue to come into the industry and build sustainable careers must give us cause for huge optimism.
Back to 75th Anniversary page