THE FINANCIAL TIMES
October 2, 2013 3:18 pm
A mother's lessons for the PR industry
By Michael Skapinker
The sector can learn from the campaign to prevent Gary McKinnon from being extradited to the US
An email arrived this week from Bell Pottinger, which calls itself "one of the leading full-service international communications companies", announcing the appointment of Stuart Leach, a practicing lawyer, to its team.
"It is all too easy to win in court but lose reputational ground outside, in the court of public opinion," the email quoted Mr Leach saying. He added that "the power of social media, and how it interacts with more traditional media, means that it is even more important to try to shape and manage the narrative during litigation, and this requires specialist help".
Does it? Let us examine the performance of someone who is not a lawyer and has never worked for an international communications company, who grew up playing on the streets of Glasgow and left school at the age of 14.
Janis Sharp prevented her son Gary McKinnon being deported to the US to face computer hacking charges, defying prosecutors' determination to get their hands on him. She did not win in court; indeed, she suffered repeated rebuffs from UK judges, who ruled the extradition should go ahead.
She had some help from Melanie Riley, a public relations professional, but the campaign was mostly her own - and she won the battle for public opinion so decisively that Theresa May, UK home secretary, nullified the extradition order.
Ms Sharp recounts her struggle in Saving Gary McKinnon: A Mother's Story. It is a book that every PR operator should read.
I see plenty of shoddy communications practice. I opened the Bell Pottinger email, but I usually ignore PR story suggestions, as well as the frequent calls asking me which journalists are writing for FT Special Reports. (If you were any good, you would know who our correspondents were.)
Here is what the communications industry can learn from Ms Sharp:
• Recognize the weaknesses in your story. Unlike others fighting extradition, Ms Sharp never claimed Mr McKinnon was innocent. She, and he, acknowledged that he had gained access to US military computers, although they denied he had caused the extensive damage the prosecutors had claimed. Instead, she repeatedly demanded he be tried in the UK rather than the US, which he had never visited.
She concentrated on America's disproportionate prison sentences and an extradition treaty that did not require the US to present substantial evidence. She pointed to more serious alleged offenders who had not been handed over, one of whom faced child sex charges.
• Don't allow yourself to be captured by interest groups. Too many PR campaigns rely on partisanship, pitting small business against government or large industries against regulators.
Ms Sharp made friends without distinction. It is difficult, in her book, to discern her political views, although she seems to have a soft spot for traditional socialists. But she lavished praise on her and her son's Conservative MPs for their unstinting support. She contacted figures in all political parties, including smaller ones such as the Ulster Unionists and George Galloway's Respect party. The result was that backers of Mr McKinnon's extradition struggled to find allies.
• Traditional media still matter most. Ms Sharp understood Twitter. But she knew that, in spite of talk of the growing irrelevance of newspapers and television, they were still the media politicians thought important. The turning points of her campaign were the backing of the Daily Mail, the UK's most feared tabloid, and a rare TV interview with Mr McKinnon that resulted in people phoning to say he clearly had Asperger syndrome.
• Work at being an expert. Ms Sharp had never heard of Asperger syndrome, but she learnt everything she could, consulting The National Autistic Society and top specialists. Their warnings that Mr McKinnon's life would be at risk if he was extradited were crucial.
• Learn how to write. There is no "reaching out" in Ms Sharp's book, no "share of voice". There is just unaffected and deeply affecting prose. She may have had help, but I know from late-night email exchanges with her that she can outwrite most of those who make a living from it.
Ms Sharp also offered something that, for all their protestations, no PR company can give its client. "The power of love is an awesome force," she wrote, "and I had that."
"Janis Sharp tells me that the words in her book were hers, unaided, so I am happy to make that clear."
Michael Skapinker added | October 3 10:31am |