Paisley: What Went Wrong for the DUP’s PR Machine

The DUP PR machine, normally so formidable stumbled in its handling of the Paisley interview this week, at least partially because of the strange tactics of its opposite numbers at the BBC.

One of the first principles of crisis communication is to limit coverage of bad news to a single news schedule, to make it into what the professionals call a “one day wonder”.

Obviously the bigger the story, the harder this is to achieve but key to success is that it should be seen as a single issue, over and done with once the broadcast and any response have been completed with no loose ends for reporters to follow up on and prolong the embarrassment. The DUP failed to achieve this.

To those not personally involved in the DUP leadership the matter at stake was straightforward enough. Every leader gets to a point where he (or she) has  passed his sell by date, no longer commands the full support of the party and is seen as a liability rather than a strength.

This is one of the basic laws of politics. Yet those in office are rarely if ever eased willingly from power, after all that runs counter to the political mindset. The only time I can recall it happening in UK politics was when Harold Wilson stepped down from the Premiership in 1976 – however this is likely to be because he was by then suffering from the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease which sadly blighted his later years.

In such circumstances the transfer of power needs to be handled with respect and dignity, and from all outside appearances this is exactly what happened in the case of Mr Paisley. However losing power in such a manner is hurtful to those affected and can cause great bitterness for many years – witness Margaret Thatcher who, after initially responding with dignity to her removal from office, later attacked those who had conspired against her.

So without in any way taking away from the brilliance of Eamonn Mallie’s scoop it is hardly surprising that Lord Bannside feels the way he does about his loss of office. And if he was, as most believe “encouraged” to depart, well that’s just politics, which, after all, is about winning and has no room for undue sentimentality. No political party is one big happy family, they are normally characterised by feuds and factions, simmering away out of public sight.

Which brings us back to the programme. Traditionally scoops, big exclusive stories are guarded jealously by broadcasters and publishers. When I worked on Sunday newspapers really big stories were sometimes kept out of the first editions so rival news organisations could not get hold of them and run “spoilers”. You wanted people to buy your paper to read the story.

In recent years, the BBC has devoted a lot of resource to running “tasters” of its investigative documentaries, putting out news releases and broadcasting stories about them in advance.

This is presumably to grow interest and audience. But it can also have the opposite effect. I have often, for example seen a piece on the news about a Panorama Show and thought to myself, thanks very much for summarising that for me, now I don’t need to watch it! I’m sure many others feel the same.

In the case of the Paisley interview all the key revelations were released by the BBC before the show was aired. Indeed we were treated to the surreal experience of Stephen Nolan devoting an hour of his show on Monday morning to reaction to a programme that had not been aired. Eamonn Mallie was interviewed as were Alex Kane and Martina Purdy who were debating the long term consequences of the programme on the DUP.

No surprise then when the DUP also decided to react in advance, with detailed statements from the main protagonists, reacting to allegations the public had not seen.

I have no idea whatsoever whether the BBC’s PR machine helped to push up the ratings for the show, or simply gave people reasons not to watch it. What is bizarre, however, is the syndrome whereby broadcasters are so anxious to be first with revelations that they broadcast them before they are even made!

And so it was this frenzied pre-reporting that presumably led to the DUP being compelled to issue statements before the show.

What does seem odd, however, is that further statements were then issued after the broadcast which guaranteed more coverage on the following day, and another slot on the dreaded Nolan.

It has not been a great week for the party.

However when the dust settles we have all learned one thing. Who can say what Paisley’s “legacy” will be? Who will ever agree upon it? A brilliant orator with huge charisma, a hard working constituency politician and also one of the most divisive figures in recent politics, reviled by some, worshipped by others, seen by some as a traitor to his cause, by others, especially after this week as a victim who was betrayed. A man who held up progress for decades, a man who spoke for a community. He will remain a paradox. However we now know that in his resentment of those he regards as having forced him from office he is just the same as any normal politician, most of whose careers end in decline.

And as for his successors, they’ve just done what everyone else in politics does, always has, always will because that is how politics works.