PR in the Shadows

We keep a pretty low profile at Chelgate. Much of our work is quite confidential, and we say little about most of our assignments. But what we would never do is to represent a client or a cause to the public, or to any third party, without making it clear exactly whom we are representing. PR people will remember the fuss last year when Burson-Marsteller were secretly hired by Facebook to run an anonymous campaign against Google.

But now we seem have run up against a similar situation in a planning battle we are fighting in Yorkshire, and this suggests a style of PR that our profession really has to leave behind.

We are retained by commercial/property interests to fight plans to plonk a giant superstore on the edge of the beautiful little market town of Malton, on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. This is one fight where my business interests and my heart are happily intertwined. I spent precious years in and around Malton watching my children grow up. Harm it at your peril!

The people of Malton are overwhelmingly against the plan (evidenced by market research) and the town council oppose it too. They know that it will suck the lifeblood out of the wonderful gaggle of little shops in the town. But the District council, who stand to benefit from a £5 million payment from the developer, have supported the plan. So much for localism! Selina Scott wrote two wonderful articles for the Telegraph and the Daily Mail warning of this threat to that lovely little town. Many others rallied to the cause.

Thanks to a successful legal challenge, the initial planning application (backed by the district council) was thrown out. But last month, the developer kicked off a new community consultation as a prelude to the submission of a new planning application. Hearts sank across Malton. Back to the barricades!

And then, coincidentally (?), last month also, a new campaign popped up, notionally promoting Malton: ‘All4Malton’, with Facebook, Twitter and a website too. At first glance, it simply looked like a supportive campaign to boost the town, with items about the Malton Food Festival, and the town’s links to Charles Dickens. But it only takes a few moments to realise that half the items it carries are actually designed to promote the threatened development. Even items not specifically about the development are clearly designed to serve it. So, there are repeated references to parking problems in Malton, with readers being encouraged to send in their ‘Malton parking horror stories’. And guess what? Parking is one of the key claimed selling points being pushed by the developers. Another is the fact that the site will include a petrol station – so of course there’s a box encouraging the public to tweet for lower petrol prices.

Our principal client in this assignment, the Fitzwilliam Estate, who own a great deal of property in Malton, and are desperately worried about this threat to the little town, is attacked and smeared (‘the Estate doing their usual scaremongering’), but nowhere, in any of all this aggressive propaganda is there any acknowledgement that it’s not just an impartial initiative to promote Malton. We are not told who is behind it, who is publishing it, who is paying for it. It’s an attack from the shadows.

I’ve no problem with a good, healthy publicity battle. In fact, I rather enjoy them, and of course we fight lots of them. But creepy little anonymous campaigns, hiding their true purpose and concealing the identities of the shadowy people who are pulling the strings, represent the squalid end of our profession. They probably also tell you a lot about the developer too.

At least Burson-Marsteller, which is a fundamentally decent and professional outfit, apologised, and recognised that this wasn’t the way for professionals to behave. I have a feeling that whoever is behind this little enterprise will be much more reluctant.

Of course, I may be entirely wrong. This may all be the work of people who simply love Malton, and are entranced with the idea of a superstore on the edge of town; so entranced that they go to these great lengths to support their passion. In which case I am happy to apologise to all concerned. But I’m peering out of my Tanner Street window right now, looking out at our little park, and I can’t see any sign of a single flying pig.

Terence Fane-Saunders