Effective PRs are often skilled magicians. They know how to make their audiences look in one direction, when the real action is happening elsewhere. The polite description is "moving the story forward," which is understandably seen as preferable to identifying a good day to bury bad news.
In Bloodland, an excellent Irish political thriller by Alan Glynn, we meet Phil Sweeney,an occasional PR consultant. "He does strategic communications, perception management, media analysis. He identifies and tracks, Echelon-style, issues that might have a bearing on his clients’ companies. Or lives. Like this one."
Put another way: "Be careful who you talk to. This from Phil fucking Sweeney? PR guru, media advisor, strategist, fixer, bagman, God knows what else?"
Jimmy Gilroy is ambitous freelance (ie semi-unemployed) journalist, who stumbles on a big story. Phil Sweeney and Jimmy's father Dec were partners for a time, co-founders of Marino Communications, and "good friends, but as basic types they were very different."
The old man was a political junkie. He grew up on the Arms Trial and Watergate, on GUBU and Iran-Contra. He was interested in what made public figures tick, psychologically, which meant that the move from clinical work into PR and media training shouldn’t have been that much of a stretch for him. You would think. But it turned out that he was markedly better at analysis than he was at manipulation, and it wasn’t long before the new job started wearing him down. Phil Sweeney, on the other hand, was a natural and in many ways a more skilled politician than a lot of the people they were dealing with. He’d studied in the US and worked there for years before coming back to set up Marino. The organisational brains behind the outfit, he was also the one with big plans, and this led to a certain amount of friction. In fact, by the time Jimmy’s old man got sick and had to start withdrawing from the business, the process of expanding it beyond all recognition had already begun.
One of Sweeney's clients is Dave Conway, and Conway doesn't like the idea of Jimmy sniffing around that particular story.
‘But look, don’t worry. I’ll talk him out of it.’ ‘OK,’ Conway says, nodding. ‘Or maybe, I don’t know . . .’ He pauses. ‘Maybe we could find something else for him to do.’ A signature Dave Conway technique. Misdirection.
Conway and Sweeney agree a plan, but their relationship sours:
All day, too, he’s been trying to calculate the cost of pissing Phil Sweeney off. Traditionally, Sweeney has been the great buffer zone between bad things happening, and how, when or even if those bad things show up in the news cycle – so he’s not someone you want to have outside of your tent, unzipping his fly.
Later Jimmy meets Bob Lessing, "a guy in his late fifties wearing a grey suit and a bow tie. Apparently, he and Phil Sweeney worked together in the eighties and have been friends ever since. Lessing runs a PR firm here and specialises in strategic communications and risk analysis for large companies working overseas.
‘You see, I work on the opposite side of the fence from you, and a lot of what I do is actually keeping people like you at bay. Or subtly veering you in certain directions. Perception management. Therefore even though I don’t work for BRX my gut instinct here is to protect them, and to obfuscate."
As the plot darkens, Sweeney appears to come clean with Gilroy.
‘Damn sure I helped you along, Jimmy. But I also played you like a fucking fiddle. Every story I fed you had an agenda, my agenda.’ Sweeney makes a sound here, a laugh, but it’s hard, mirthless. ‘And you were so easy. You were so eager to get ahead.’
Maybe PR Sweeney does have a conscience after all...
‘I don’t know what’s real here and what isn’t, what’s spin and what’s truth.’
‘I thought that was the whole point, Phil. Of Marino Communications. Of you. Of why we all pay you so much.’
‘For the little stuff, maybe, expense sheets and zipper trouble, for papering over the cracks, but this . . .’ He shrugs, shakes his head, searching for the words.
‘Something about this stinks to high heaven.’