David and Goliath – narrative of the PR ban

The PR ban is often the core plot of a classic David and Goliath narrative. The key elements of such a fantasy theme are simple:

  • a likeable central character (individual, group or organisation) who represents positive values
  • a challenge or opposing force that has to be overcome
  • supporting characters who offer positive or negative reactions
  • the plot of how the problem emerged and will be resolved
  • similarity of the story to similar ones which can reinforce the message

My PR narrative model draws out three aspects:

  • Subject – what is being said
  • Mode – how the narration is expressed
  • Means – the way in which the narration is conveyed

The recent story of Martha Payne, the nine-year old girl who faced a ban on taking photographs of her school meals for her NeverSeconds blog is a clear example. A cute child who reflects a positive attitude towards healthy eating, facing opposition to her articulate posts from the bureaucratic forces of Argyll and Bute Council. The supporting characters include an army of bloggers and Twitterites, plus the heroic school-dinner warrior, celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver. The story evolved quickly, with the help of social and traditional media who turned on the evil council, forcing its leader to apologise live on the serious BBC Radio 4 news programme, The World at One.


Subject
= a classic bullying story, with symbols of the nanny state oppressing a caring and intelligent child and excellent visual imagery.
Mode = again, classic framing of the story, with a child’s innocent voice offset by the bureaucratic tone of the council. An open social media expression vs closed statements that promised but did not evidence dialogue.
Means = a charming blog vs officious letters and press releases, the continuous focus on the goal of Martha and the dismissive evidence of the council’s one-off statements.

The wise sages of social media have claimed a victory – with many approbating the PR gatekeepers for their ineptitude or inability to offer strategic counsel to the council. Stephen Waddington notes a failure of the council to recognise its reputation lies in the hands of the citizens, although Neville Hobson praises “good old common sense” from the council leader, implying a change of heart or riding to the rescue at the 11th hour. Stuart Bruce partially backs the maligned PR foot soldiers, whilst Tom Chivers takes the opportunity to abuse them writing:

And so we learn that Argyll and Bute Council’s PR department, as well as being so bad at their jobs that they don’t realise what a PR disaster it would be to try to censor a sweet nine-year-old girl’s popular blog about food, are middle-management dolts who live in such constant fear of sounding stupid that they desperately throw clever-sounding words around like a monkey tearing up a thesaurus. Well done guys, another triumph.

An investigation into the backstory of public relations at the remote Scottish ‘kingdom’ of Argyll and Bute reveals a history of poor public relations. Earlier this year, two press officers were suspended for sharing jokes via an internal message system which they were apparently unaware was being monitored. A couple of months before, the communication manager was suspended after confessing to using ‘spy accounts’ to monitor groups opposing the council. She was also at the heart of other controversial media claims. Something certainly seems amiss in the communications competencies of the council – evidenced also by its antiquated website and the dull utterances on the Twitter account primarily promoting policy decisions and ‘glittering’ awards.

The decision to enact a ban initiated a chain of events that enabled a simple narrative, with the philistine Goliath defeated by a young David. The outcome is an impressive 6+ million hits for the blog and nearly £100,000 raised for the charity, Mary’s Meals which funds school feeding projects. A fantastic end to the story.

Another retelling of the ‘little guy defeats giant‘ narrative – again with a Scottish setting – was the BrewDog ‘ban’ on winning an award following intervention and threats from the global giant drinks company, Diageo. All dressed up and ready to attend the ball, the Cinderellas of the story were advised of Ugly Sister threats that future gold sovereigns would not be forthcoming should they receive their glass slipper of recognition. The citizens of Twitterati again launched 140-character attacks with the professional PR defence reduced to a humble quote:

We would like to apologise unreservedly to BrewDog and to the British Institute of Innkeeping for this error of judgment and we will be contacting both organisations imminently to express our regret for this unfortunate incident.

The PR ban is a pretty poor weapon when used to protect a reputation – the moral appears to be that it inflames a situation, necessitating apologia as soothing PR balm. In such circumstances, public relations practitioners appear as winged monkeys at the behest of the wicked corporate witches rather than beholders of magical powers to protect knaves and fools as the industry’s legends like to narrate.

From a PR perspective, we’re destined never to live happily ever after once we unleash the ban – especially on a much more media-friendly character.

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4 thoughts on “David and Goliath – narrative of the PR ban

  1. The young blogger (who is admirable and should never have been banned) hit the right notes to attract the right-on crowd. Yet try saying something controversial… Try defending the tuck shop and fizzy drinks and people’s right to choose what they eat and how they live their lives. Try resisting the health lobby that not only claims to know what’s best for kids and parents, but advocates enforcing their will on the unwilling. The Goliath of this story is the healthy eating/life-style lobby – with their authoritarian arrogance and contempt for the ordinary habits of ordinary people – not the local authority, which was just shoddy. Jamie has become a saint who looks down on little (most) people who don’t share his obsessions and prejudices… it sucks. So, if you dig deeper you’ll find that opposing PR bans only becomes popular when Goliath side’s feels slighted…otherwise they are born-again ban-aholics set on exterminating every message, product and life-style they despise. Ordinary people are the David of the wider story here.

  2. Here’s the real twist in the tale. Martha Payne loved her school dinners as they were dished up to her! If you click the link to her website you’ll see she praises the food that the foodies love to hate:

    “Today’s meal was delicious. It was a beef burger, roast potatoes and peas. I didn’t want any salad today. The roast potatoes were soft. The ice lolly for dessert comes in orange, yellow, purple and green. I got given purple. It has two sticks because it’s easier to hold that way.”

    The point about her “positive attitude towards healthy eating” etc…and her being a campaigner was made up by, er, campaigners and Twitterers living on another planet. Hers was a project the school encouraged, it was the local authority that stupidly objected, much to her school’s dismay.

    Talk about life out of true! One in the eye for Jamie, says I.

    • If you go back in her posts, you’ll see that she had a healthy rating from the beginning and very early on she wanted Jamie Oliver to visit her blog. I believe there’s more to this blog than meets the eye – and some of the posts imply that her family rear animals etc, so she’s not daft about food at all.

      She also participated in various meetings with chefs and the local council regarding getting salad at school.

      I still believe she demonstrates a positive attitude towards healthy eating – I didn’t say she was obsessive about it and a balanced diet is my definition of healthy. And, she was certainly campaigning early on with this blog – with the support of the school and her father.

      As I say, this one isn’t all it appears to be on the surface. I wonder how many other school children have blogs that managed the hits so early on that she did…

  3. I think we have to take what she writes at face value and not be tempted to see in this nine-year-old girl some machiavellian (hidden) agenda (plot) to strike back at her school authorities by launching a campaign for healthy lunches. We know things go viral and that it is difficult sometimes to know why. But it is not always the product of a PR machine or even of a canny dad. As for her wanting Jamie to look at her blog and pass comments etc: he’s famous (my 14-year-old loves famous chefs and knows a few, including one with two michelin stars in whose kitchen he did a one-week school placement…in the old days kids wanted to be train drivers, now it’s chefs)… But the evidence suggests, she loved what they gave her. The only complaint I could read was that they didn’t give her enough of it. (she notes refusing the salad etc..no role-model, then, for the millions of hits from kids she must get!…suggests to me she’s for real)… and it was a school project, not one driven by dad (however supportive he’s been!) or opposed by the school that designed the meals. If I’m wrong, then somebody has been manipulating a child (scripting her entries to deceive and telling her to tell lies online and at school) in pursuit of their own narrow agenda. That would be seriously out of order! It would call for Mr. Plod to poke his nose in…. seriously unethical.

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