News that Prince Harry is being redeployed from his 10 week tour in Afghanistan shows that the Ministry of Defence had a rather basic “plan B” in the event of media leaking the story.
From a public relations perspective, this has been an interesting situation – especially following the recent publication of Nick Davies’ book, Flat Earth News, which claims that the “media have become mass producers of distortion“.
In commenting on Davies’ views, CIPR president, Liz Lewis-Jones stated in a blogpost that she believed PR practitioners “have to be totally transparent” and “never lie” (with honesty being key to the Institute’s code of conduct).
The importance of integrity for the PR profession is underlined by research initiated by Davies (and conducted by Cardiff University) which found at least 80% of news stories in a sample of “quality” UK newspapers were “wholly, mainly or partially constructed from second-hand material, provided by news agencies and by the public relations industry”.
You cannot blame those in public relations for issuing information that is then re-published without independent verification by journalists – but it does raise important questions about whether organisations should use PR to take advantage of media’s current problems.
In the case of Prince Harry’s deployment, it seems the media (not exclusively but predominantly UK-based) were complicit in “embargoing” the story in “exchange for getting regular pictures, video and text of his day-to-day activities once the planned four-month assignment was completed.”
Whether or not MoD press relations staff lied in this case, it surely cannot help improve the public perception of either PR or the media. Although some people feel the case reflects badly on the media who revealed the story, others (notably Jon Snow) question whether the media should have kept the secret.
From the PR perspective, we can recall that last Summer, the MoD was criticised over allowing the “Iran sailors” to sell their stories to the tabloid press. This time it appears that the price of a good story was a media blackout. Despite having reportedly more than 1000 press officers, the MoD again seems to have not understood some of the basics of modern media.
Yes, deals can be done, but secrets cannot be kept. Little harm seems to have been done in respect of the safety of Prince Harry, and even more importantly, his fellow soldiers. We cannot realistically expect total transparency in respect of military matters, but doesn’t PR pay a price for seeking opacity?