18 July 2019
Arwyn Jones, the BBC’s respected Wales correspondent, has a new job: after 15 years with the Corporation, he’s been appointed director of communications and engagement at the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff. Prima facie, not a surprising choice. The path between journalism and communications is a well-worn one, with famous alumni marked along the way: Craig Oliver, Alastair Campbell, Bernard Ingham, Joe Haines. It’s clear that, when politicians and political institutions want someone to take the helm of their public image, they turn to the media.
Anyone who works in PR is aware that the stock of the profession is not high. Estate agents no longer take the heat they did in the 1980s and 1990s, but bankers have slithered down the pole to join us in the mire. I recently heard a very senior journalist say, literally, that tabloid newsrooms were so brutal that, if you worked in one, “You might as well just go and work in PR.” You can see the tropes: public relations is thought of as the home of spin and misdirection, even downright lying. The joke is, if a PR person tells you it’s a sunny day, you should look out of the window to check it’s not raining.
PR types can come from very diverse backgrounds. The communications industry is a competitive and overcrowded one. Looking around the Right Angles office, I can see an anthropologist, a trained journalist, a social media expert, a language and literature specialist, a radio producer and presenter, and an economist; and this is written by an historian and ex-bureaucrat. So while there’s a pervasive atmosphere of make-do-and-mend, of people turning their hand to it and doing their best, there’s also an atmosphere of collaboration; there’s always someone with expertise in the area you seek.
I mentioned competition, and while it’s absolutely a cut-throat industry, there are some fundamental verities and key pieces of philosophy behind it; if you don’t absorb them very quickly, you’re out. If you go to a party in London with professionals of — ahem — a certain age, you’ll hear more than a few performances of the popular aria, “I worked in PR for a while.” It’s something people think they can just have a crack at. Decent degree, new suit and a ready smile? Get the business cards printed up, and let me at ‘em!
But there’s more to it than that. Yes, you can learn how to read the daily media and see opportunities and pitfalls. That’s the easy part. You can see a space where a client might make herself an instant expert for some quick wins, or spot a networking opportunity that’s purely a pleasantry now but might bear fruit three or six months down the line. But there are things we know how to do instinctively that not everyone can learn. And that’s the ability to make connections, to see mutually beneficial relationships that others ignore; an encyclopaedic memory for names and jobs, and a degree of charm which at least seems sincere even if it is synthetic (believe me, it’s easier just to give people the benefit of the doubt and genuinely warm to them). It’s ultimately about people, and in that sense not that far removed from the newsroom. Again, the impression that anyone can do it — ask any journalist how many times someone has said to them, “I used to be good at English in school, I could have been a journalist!” — but it is a supreme but eternal irony that both professions are actually very bad at their own PR.
Coming back to Arwyn Jones, the feeling among the media community is that he will do well, and will bring many skills to the role at the Senedd. But, without wanting to be prissy, he’s not a communications professional. He’s a storyteller and an analyst, because that’s what a lot of journalism is, and no-one who’s worked in PR for very long underestimates those qualities. But he’s not a strategic thinker, or a brand expert, or a corporate philosophy guru. These are things a PR specialist could have done for the Welsh Assembly, and done well. I worked in the UK Parliament for more than 10 years, and so I know that major public institutions, especially ‘corporate’ ones, can be laughably bad at comms, from embarrassing social media gaffes to a tin ear for how stories will play. They need to see the PR industry as a potential ally and co-operator, not the enemy.