Who is spinning the congestion charge story?

Although Porsche has claimed the victory in its legal challenge to the £25 “gas guzzler” London, congestion charge, it is not surprising that most of the coverage (outside the specialist motoring media) reports the story as a climb down by new Mayor Boris Johnson in deciding to scrap the levy.

Porsche has won legal damages, said to be £400,000 which, in an canny CSR gesture, it will donate to the charity, Skidz.

However, the potentially risky PR strategy by Porsche to contest the charge may not be over as there are still plenty of stakeholders unhappy at the Mayor’s move. 

Interesting to see that one of the main arguments against the charge was put forward by a report commissioned by LandRover from the Centre for Economics and Business Research

It is always difficult for such work to be seen as independently credible, as it is unlikely to be used if the findings run counter to the goals of the funders.  This is especially the case when the report is headed: “Green tax or white elephant?”, which doesn’t exactly present an objective impression.

Looking further at the report, its independence does not seem to mean undertaking a robust analysis of the case being examined.  It is clear from the use of language that a particular perspective is being supported.

Does this matter?  The rhetorical perspective of PR supports the view that organisations have a right to put forward their positions, and it is up to others (such as the former mayor, Ken Livingstone and environmental groups, in this case) to offer counter arguments in order for public opinion to reflect on these (often via the media and other channels of debate).

So it is not surprising that the language used to support a particular side in the debate will be carefully selected – and indeed, one of the skills of a PR practitioner lies in framing messages.

Porsche’s decision to support Kidz is framed as backing “a charity devoted to taking at-risk youths off the streets and a life of knife crime, and giving them training in mechanical skills and maintenance.”  Those are very topical messages giving the current media focus on stabbing incidents. 

PR materials (regardless of whether they are produced by businesses, charities or public bodies) do not present information in a truly neutral way.  But then neither does the media. 

To return to my opening point – there are many ways of telling this particularly story.  A triumph for Porsche, a disaster for the environment, Boris keeping his promises, another insult for Ken.  Each of these can be true and each involves some spinning.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

3 thoughts on “Who is spinning the congestion charge story?”

  1. What I find interesting is that Porsche is in a very difficult position with this and one that could have gone, or could still go, so wrong for them. Were they right to oppose the charge increase? If they had not, it would have seemed like turkeys not opposing Christmas; the vehicles being targeted are their business. But taking such a stance on such a volatile topic could ultimately have a very different outcome. Public perception is shifting against high CO2 cars, regardless of the accuracy of the opinions behind it. Look at it this way – would a tobacco firm opposing taxes on cigarettes be received the same way by the media?

    What if this is seen in retrospect as a retrograde step in environmental care, as Ken suggests? Porsche could end up finding out what’s good for business now may not necessarily be good for reputation later.

    Judging that is the real challenge for PRs.

  2. I find it amazing that very few publications have picked up the fact that the sub-121g/km c-charge free band has also been scrapped. So anyone who’s bought a low-CO2 car in the hope it will be free from the C-charge come October will now be paying £8 a day.

    Although if you’ve got an LPG car, then there’s no need to sell it to remain C-charge free.

  3. Phil/Tristan – you both illustrate how the c-charge message merges the environmental/CO2 issue with that of beating congestion (maybe inevitably). But it has become unclear what the objective of the charge is, making it open to much (mis)interpretation. Then we have the matter of using “taxes” as a method of managing behaviour, where more messages can be used about penalising the “ordinary motorist”. So far, Porsche seems to have avoided being stimatised over this, but I feel it will come back to bite the brand – and probably Mayor Boris who also seems to be portrayed as the people’s champion on this.

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