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In defense of the gum-chewing PR pro

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One media outlet called PR professional Sara MacIntyre “Canada’s newest TV villain.”

That’s a bit much.

MacIntyre is the communications director for British Columbia Premier Christy Clark. And, thanks to comments like that, she’s more famous than her boss.

In a heated exchange with the B.C. provincial press, MacIntyre denied media access to Clark at a green energy summit. Video of her chomping on gum while telling reporters the premier wasn’t taking questions went viral in Canada.

It led most major outlets in the area to run stories excoriating her and generated a number of scathing national media hits. A legion of public relations experts and media trainers emerged to comment on MacIntyre’s folly. Writing in PR Daily, Brad Phillips ripped her for everything from “forgetting her audience” to “chewing gum.”

But does she deserve the negative press?

I worked with MacIntyre in the office of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the early 2000s. Rather than jump on the bandwagon of hacks and PR experts attacking Sara MacIntyre, we should understand that her actions are rooted in a logic about political media relations that is supported by some evidence.

In recent years, prominent right-wing politicians—from George W. Bush to Stephen Harper—have treated the media with utter contempt and given them limited access. Though there is little doubt this has bred serious acrimony with the Fourth Estate, in no discernible way has it made any impact on the success of either politician.

Bush, though panned for his controlled approach to media relations, was a two-term president. Harper negotiated minority Parliaments for more than five years and then won a majority—hardly small achievements.

I’m not recommending that my fellow PR practitioners—whether in politics or other realms—behave in gratuitously provocative ways as my former colleague did. No doubt, she broke a cardinal rule about “the story being about her, not her boss.”

In politics today, it seems you can treat journalists like dogs and win. That was not, I’d wager, as true in the past. From a media relations perspective, people like MacIntyre have calculated that the political media need access to leaders more than leaders need the press. Politics is one of the only realms of PR where this notion holds any strength.

If I told people who cover consumer technology that my tech clients are “not taking questions today,” the journalists would laugh (or worse) and go cover any of the two hundred other companies vying for their attention. In this dynamic, clients need the media as much as, or more than, the media need us. As a result, we must heed their demands. The situation is true in the vast majority of encounters between a PR pro and a journalist, with the striking exception of politics.

In the case of MacIntyre, maybe the media are just being human and reacting to rude treatment. Maybe—as MacIntyre, Bush, and Harper might argue—reporters are angry about the painful truth that they matter less in the political realm. As for the PR experts, maybe they’re just excited by the chance to flex their bona fides.

But the ultimate truth is that there is little to suggest that Christy Clark (or her electoral bottom line) is going to suffer.

Jackson Wightman is owner of Proper Propaganda, a consultancy that specializes in cause marketing. He is also PR Daily’s contributing editor for Canada.