In My Opinion: Dorothy-Grace Elder: Please, no more secretive PR

SCOTLAND remains a country of knee jerk secrecy, despite Freedom of Information and good Scottish Information Commissioners, past and present.

Sometimes I wonder if, when Communism fell, the KGB’S media handling tricks relocated to Scotland.

But that’s not really fair…on the old Kremlin operatives. They were sophisticated enough to become reasonable, occasionally.

Nowadays, finding out anything from ‘officialdom’ in Scotland reminds me of my early days in newspapers when I would occasionally have to ring press officers actually representing the old Soviet Union – with Moscow responding via London – to be blocked by the usual tactics: Wall of Silence or a duff quote.

But sometimes there would be a ‘soft’ story – for example, a refusal to let a Russian bride join her Scottish husband here. The duty ‘Ivan’ was usually KGB but also a seasoned journalist who spoke ‘journo language’ as well as perfect English.

I’d say: “Get real, this story is shaping up into either a happy ending or another tale about you being heartless bastards. Your choice.”

‘Ivan’ would chuckle. But he’d ring back, claiming “just a mix up” and that the bride was free to go, with added guff about a love story touching people’s hearts.

No hearts will be touched in the media on hearing the news, a week or so ago, of Scottish Government plans to contest a ruling by the Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew. She says the Scottish Government should reveal whether or not it sought legal advice about the status an independent Scotland would have in the EU.

This harks back to last year and the Scottish Government contesting – at tax payers’ expense – a ruling by the then Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, to reveal the financial implications of a proposed Local Income Tax.

PRs, press officers, ‘spinners’ – call them what you like – face fury from the media over secrecy of all kinds, be it in the private sector or, much worse, the public domain. But it’s their bosses who are really to blame and surely it’s time for those in the front line – the press officers – to argue that good relations with the media don’t come through running a drey for secret squirrels.

We’re at a stage in Scotland and the UK where the growing PR industry might even outnumber our press journalists and they certainly outnumber the tiny band of investigative writers. As the Leveson Inquiry looks at Press standards, so it might be worth examining the difficulty for the media when barriers are erected by a well-resourced PR machine.

Of course, there are good press officers. Only last week, albeit on a soft story, the lively enthusiasm and professionalism of a press officer at National Museums Scotland inspired me over their Catherine the Great exhibition in Edinburgh.

My own personal frustrations have often been when dealing with the large number of PR handlers operated by health boards. I remember once receiving a 15-word ‘statement’ about a deadly outbreak of Clostridium difficile (C. diff) that said nothing, despite an endless wait for information.

As taxpayers, journalists are among those paying for non-information.

Two years ago, Labour MSP Jackie Baillie used a FoI request to reveal that more than £4 million was being spent on 125 press, media and communications staff in Scottish health boards – estimated to be enough to hire 154 nurses, on a starting salary. Of course, that’s information that should be available in the public domain, as a matter of course, without an FoI request being required to reveal it.

When cuts slash down, the cutters seem to need more PR.

In private industry, the worst thing a company can do is represent themselves through hiring a distant (usually London) PR outfit instead of a local Scottish firm or having someone in-house.

Distant ‘corporate relations’ creates what I call the ‘fool circle’.

First, you ring Mr. Big Cheese at the firm, to hear the grim announcement, in railway station tones, that all media enquiries are being handled by a PR outift in London.

You’re given the number of some Jakki (she spells it with two kks) but Jakki handles several accounts and it becomes clear she doesn’t know her bass from her oboe about Scotland. She’ll ring you back, meaning she is fool-circling to Mr Big Cheese, who is two miles away from your base in Scotland.

But he’s either unreachable or Two Ks giggles, deb-style, that she forgot about your second question.

By the time your deadline nears, Jakki is off to a wine bar with Selia (with an S) and Nigell (with two lls). I swear, one Scottish newsroom used to keep a list of their daft names.

So, here’s my appeal. Let’s celebrate the best PR and expose the worst, with our own Secret Squirrel trophy. I don’t how it would be done, practically, except for journalists logging incidents, but this I do know: decent PRs want to do a good job and many should be liberated from the Kremlinesque ethos of their bosses.

Dorothy-Grace Elder is a former Investigative Reporter of the Year in the UK Press Awards, an ex SNP MSP and is an honorary Professor of journalism at The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. She has written political columns in the Scottish Daily Express for the past ten years.