We are all filled with revulsion on the abuses allegedly perpetuated by the late Sir Jimmy Savile. From once cherished national icon to now a demon, the questions of why, how did it happen and why didn’t any do something occupy the headlines.
Yet, how much are people who have worked in PR people guilty of creating this monster? How much were public relations professionals responsible for helping to nurture and support this alleged paedophile monster?
I have got put my hand up here, and probably, along with a legion of PR people, helped support Savile’s public profile. We played along with him, excusing his ways, where the man was seemingly at one with his caricature brand image.
For my part I was on the Committee that bestowed him with the award of ‘Yorkshireman of the Year’.
I’d played a key role in promoting the Yorkshire Spinal Injuries Centre – which we positioned as the ‘Stoke Mandeville of the North’ in recognition that we didn’t have a hope in hell’s chance of toppling the immense profile that Sir Jimmy had helped built there.
I even had my daughter, then seven years-old along with a group of her friends, take part in a junior ‘Sir Jimmy Savile lookalike’ competition I was running to promote a Leeds city centre shopping centre. (Thank God, the man was nowhere near the competition.)
I had used Sir Jimmy in various photocalls from promoting local good causes to curry houses through to celebrating Yorkshire Day.
All the time, I was contributing to building up his public profile, his brand image of a loveable eccentric.
All in turn contributing to what is increasingly emerging as a cover, a shield, an untouchable clause to help him allegedly conduct his distasteful sexual predatory activities.
I now know what it must have been like to be a German during World War II.
All the time we were using him (and it now appears, him using us) we knew of a whiff, background rumours, a vague hint that somehow not everything was good about the man.
Yet we carried on. Why?
It is vital we learn from this. Key lessons I would suggest include:
1. Tread carefully in the grey area of the ‘rumour zone’.
We should always be mindful of the dreadful case where Christopher Jefferies was wrongly arrested by Bristol police in the hunt for the murderer of Joanna Yeates. Jeffries became fair game for a media witch hunt. We should be wary of trampling on the principle of someone innocent until proved guilty – which we need to remind ourselves, is Savile’s current position.
While mindful of the need to rightly demonise where appropriate, we must ensure we uphold the fundamental right of innocent until proven guilty.
2. Be aware of the famous and the good they do – and how it can influence your thinking.
Increasing evidence from neuroscience shows how our thinking is less rational based and more often guided by rules of thumb of, ‘I’ve heard of him, so he must be alright’ and ‘If he’s doing good there he must be good elsewhere’. These availability and favourability heuristics guide our responses.
No one is perfect. Yet we live in a world of what Mark Borkowski calls the ‘Now Economy’ populated by ‘Marmite brands’ – you either love them or hate them. Sir Jimmy was an early proponent of ‘You’ve got to love for me this…and at the very least go into denial about that.’
We need to recognise that it is still possible to criticise the behaviours of someone, if not the person. It is still possible to respect someone even if you disagree with them. The world is not black and white. We need to be more comfortable in operating with issues which are more of a shade of grey than a clear cut answer. By doing so it provides greater latitude to responding to specific instances.
3. Watch out for charity blackmail
Various tabloid journalists are now claiming that they were mindful of the consequences of the damage to major charity fund-raising if they confronted Savile about the ‘rumours’. Ben Goldacre in his latest book ‘Bad Pharma’ claims various medical charity groups are compromised by being funded by the pharmaceutical industry.
How much is CSR being used as a gagging tool rather than a means for doing good?
Do we need a new word to describe the use of CSR to ensure guilty people avoid being held to account for their actions?
4. ‘Say it ain’t so Joe’ – be prepared to be let down by your heroes
Legend has it that as American baseball legend ‘Shoe Joe Jackson’ was leaving the courthouse during an alleged match rigging trial, a young boy begged of him: “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” and that Jackson did not respond.
In public relations a part of our work is to create and nurture brand icons and brand legends. We need to remember the brand equation that Brand Image ≠ Brand Integrity.
We need to accept that in projecting an image we need to be mindful that behind the star lies a real person, full of human frailties.
How much are your responses guided by what you want to be, rather than what is?
A major philosophical concept, well at least a label, was not created by a philosopher – but by a comedian. During an episode of the political satire show ‘The Colbert Report’ comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word ‘truthiness’. It means in essence: ‘the quality of stating concepts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than the facts.’
Our reality is that we all see the world through ‘truthiness glasses’. We all cultivate positive illusions about ourselves to boost or protect our self esteem, make ourselves happier, and to cope with difficult challenges.
Our brain’s reticular activating system filters how we see the world, filtering incoming data according to what you want to see. We prime ourselves to notice certain things; implicitly we do not see other things.
Before he died the truthiness about Sir Jimmy Savile was that he was a lovable eccentric, a tireless chairty fund-raiser, a proud Yorkshireman. And that’s the way we wanted – the truthiness of it.
6. Ambiguity of age
This is not an excuse but times were different in the 1960’s and 1970’s when what was acceptable, or at the margins of acceptability then, may now be beyond the pale.
This is in no way meant to excuse the man in any shape or form. Yet to provide younger readers with an idea of the Zeitgeist I remember when I worked at South Yorkshire County Council in the early 1980’s. This was regarded as a ’Loony Left Council’ perceived as being radical, right-on and in the vanguard of the then nascent concept of political correctness.
Yet, even here I remember walking through Council offices where the solitary male manager in a department full of women lower-grade workers, had his desk area plastered with Page 3 pin ups.
This is no excuse for any of Savile’s behaviour but in forming judgments on any issue, you need to be mindful and take into account different times and cultures. (Aren’t you now glad we had Political Correctness?)
7. Truth will out
One major positive I would take from this sordid episode is how truth will out.
You will ultimately get the reputation you deserve.
While this may be too late for many of Savile’s alleged victims it does restore some semblance of natural justice that we are all responsible for our actions, how integrity is aligning your words with your actions. This case will provide valuable ammunition for decent public relations counsel of ‘doing the right thing’.
I now need to come to terms with my role, albeit extremely modest and minor, in contributing to the existence of an alleged monster.
Unlike the years of ignoring rumours about Savile all of us in PR need to confront this case and work out why did we let it happen, what we did wrong, and how we must learn from the experience.