Monday 29 May 2017

AdLib: Press secretary in command

Media & Marketing with Michael Cullen

Government press secretary Feargal Purcell;
Government press secretary Feargal Purcell;

Michael Cullen

There's no comparison whatsoever between Government and opposition politics - they're worlds apart. Using football as an analogy, it's like playing a match without having to adhere to the offside rule, Government press secretary Feargal Purcell told a Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) members' breakfast briefing in the Shelbourne Hotel.

When briefing journalists on the country's economic hardships, Purcell watched as "everyone went white" and saw the sense of hurt as the media felt they were being lied to, knowing well things were not as they appeared. But the ex-Army commandant insists he always shoots from the hip and is entirely straight up in his relations with media.

He admits he spins messages to relay Government policies in the best light, but there's never any shying away from the truth and the facts as they arise. His job is to inform the media and answer difficult questions around decisions taken by the Taoiseach and his Cabinet ministers. "It will be fair, or rather, as fair as possible," Purcell said, referring to media briefings. Like DUP leader Arlene Foster, Purcell used crocodiles as a metaphor. A crocodile eats twice a year, and usually it's its owners' arms, he said. But if you feed the beast on the basis of its voracious appetite, you're in trouble - you need to slow down. A spokesperson must be able to communicate at their own pace. He disagrees with the cliché, if you're explaining, you're losing. He believes explaining the facts is essential.

A native of Kilkenny, Purcell, 44, was head-hunted from the Army press office by Enda Kenny, first to join Fine Gael. In 2011, he became Government press secretary, acting as Taoiseach and Government spokesman, Kenny's adviser on all media relations and briefing the political corrs on Government policies.

News now is almost out there before it happens, Purcell says. He believes social media has killed off the traditional news cycle completely as breaking stories are tweeted on the spot. He says there needs to be a new stream of media with communicators working alongside those who formulate Government policy.

Purcell says every Irish politician should have a Twitter account and points to the fact that Donald Trump has 20.5 million followers. But he added that it's important that what they tweet is authentic and 'fake news' is ignored. "You can't own the media anymore," he says. Journalists are under huge pressure, pushing out copy 24/7.

Referring to RTÉ Radio's 'Morning Ireland' setting the weekday news agenda, Purcell says that when he gets out of bed in the morning these days, there's only about a 20pc leverage. He must plan for the next day and let whatever breaks on a particular morning go. A parent of young kids, he no longer gets worked up about issues over which he has little or no control.

Nor does he ever tell the Taoiseach or any minister what to say. If they want a sounding board and some advice, he's there. He steadfastly defends Mr Kenny's record as Taoiseach and is puzzled by efforts to depose him as FG leader.

Likewise, he commends his boss on his St Patrick's Day visit to the White House, which he described as "a difficult needle to thread", amid a need to talk to US President Donald Trump about immigration and respect. Purcell's time in the Army taught him the two most important things in doing his job well are personal responsibility and loyalty.

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Opportunities and challenges facing Ireland's magazine publishers in today's digital world will be discussed at the first Magfest. Organised by Magazines Ireland, the seminar will look at new publishing models and explore ways of extending audience engagement and building reader loyalty and trust.

Speakers include Time Inc CEO Marcus Rich, Tim Brooks, former CEO of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and Dr Jane Suiter, director of the EU-sponsored Institute for Future Media and Journalism at DCU. Magfest gets under way with a lunch in the Mansion House followed by a series of afternoon sessions on Wednesday, April 26.

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Motorbike racer Nicole Lynch is Flogas's new brand ambassador. Lynch will be driving a car converted to Flogas Autogas on her way to bike races. She races a Medlar Racing Suzuki SV650 in the Supertwins class in the Thundersport GB Championship in England and Wales and the Irish and Ulster Short Circuit championships. She's also due to compete in rounds of the Masters Superbike Championship.

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One of adland's most highly-regarded strategic planners, Sean Whitaker, has died suddenly but peacefully at the age of 63. He worked in several top agencies down the years, including McConnells, O'Kennedy Brindley/Saatchi & Saatchi, DDFH&B and McCann's. He worked closely on the Heineken account. During his time at Irish International, he was the lead planner on Guinness and Bank of Ireland.

Michael Cullen is editor of Marketing.ie; cullen@marketing.ie

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