I attend a public relations course at Sunningdale - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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I attend a public relations course at Sunningdale

I had given Keith Ansell, the Command PRO, a call immediately after I got back home in Chester from my interview and expressed my surprise that he had not been on the panel. He had no idea that the interview had already taken place - he'd been told it would be the following week and he had expected to be on it. He told me he thought he'd been given the wrong date for the board deliberately so that he couldn't have any input into the proceedings - an example, perhaps, of the RAF not entirely trusting the Civil Service. Discreet enquiries I made after I had taken up the post confirmed that Keith had indeed deliberately been kept off the appointment board.

While I was working my three months' notice at Sealand, I was invited by Keith to take time out from Sealand to attend a three-day tri-service public relations course at the Civil Service College at beautiful Sunningdale Park near Ascot. It is worth noting that in 1989 many people thought PR stood for Press Relations and the word media was hardly known or used in military circles. I had been Press Officer and Press Liaison Officer at a couple of stations earlier in my career but I had never been referred to as the 'public' relations officer. Indeed, I had been specifically briefed by the Station Commander at RAF Finningley when he appointed me as his Press Liaison Officer at the height of the Cold War that my main job would be to keep the press off his station!

The course I attended at Sunningdale was run by the Director of Public Relations (RAF), a one-star ranking officer. He and his Royal Navy and Army equivalents took it in turn to run the course. If the course syllabus had a fault it was that it tried to be all things to all people. The RAF students included mostly very junior officers who were destined to be part-time station or squadron PROs as a secondary duty and who knew little or nothing about writing news releases and the organisation of press facilities. Others were, like me, fairly well experienced in PR and about to take on a much wider range of responsibilities. This diversity of talents made it difficult for the staff to run a programme that could keep all of us interested all of the time but, by and large, they succeeded. Added interest was provided by visiting lecturers from newspapers and radio and television stations who came in to tell us what they, or their news editors, expected from military news releases. Selected PROs and CROs already in post were invited to come and tell us how they were getting on with the job and give us the benefit of their experience. We had a series of classroom exercises where we could try our hand at writing news releases and being interviewed for radio and television.

I did pick up a few snippets. I learned that we were supposed to avoid using the term 'Press Release' on the grounds that we did not release the press: the approved MoD phrase was 'News Release'. No-one had ever told me that before and Í thought it was a bit 'picky'. We were also supposed to avoid heading our news releases with the phrase 'For Immediate Release' because if the content was not for immediate release, we shouldn't be releasing it at all! That made military sense but nowadays it seems governments, and probably other business organisations, frequently issue news releases with a time embargo on them.

We were advised never to answer a journalist's question with 'No comment' because that phrase was itself a significant comment and allowed the journalist to interpret its meaning how he or she wished. The tortuous example quoted went like this. If a journalist asked, "When did the Station Commander stop beating his wife" and the PRO replied "No comment", the journalist could quite accurately report that, "The Station PRO did not deny the Station Commander had been beating his wife", or "An RAF spokesman would not confirm that the Station Commander had been beating his wife". Although each of those statements was undeniably correct, readers could be left with entirely the wrong idea about the station commander's life style.

I can honestly state that in my 11 years with the Red Arrows all my hundreds of releases were about news and not about the press, and I never once said "No comment". When I genuinely did not know the answer to a reporter's reasonable question, I said I didn't know but I would find out. I never lied to any journalist either but, of course, if they asked the wrong questions or did not press the appropriate points, and that happened quite a lot, that was their fault not mine.

To be honest, I found much of the Sunningdale course content rather boring but, more importantly, it soon became apparent to me that there was a fundamental weakness in the RAF public relations system. Without wishing to appear disrespectful to any of the incumbents during my time, the post of RAF Director of Public Relations in London seemed to be misnamed because he was not, as laymen may have imagined, the fount of all information about the RAF. The Director of Public Relations and his staff rarely issued stories to the media because that was the responsibility of the Defence Press Office, another quite separate organisation along the corridor on the ground floor of MoD Main Building and manned mainly by career civil servants.

DPR(RAF), as our man was known, was on the MoD Central Staffs but not in the direct RAF command chain. Protocol dictated that he could not give orders to station commanders and, as a result of that, he had no authority to direct PROs and CROs or their assets. He could not, for example, dictate where the RAF Bands, the RAF Parachute Team, or the Red Arrows and other display aircraft would perform. One DPR(RAF) in the mid-1990s told me wryly that he seemed to spend much of every working day waiting in his ground floor office to be summoned to the top floor, where the Minister and the senior RAF chiefs had their offices, to explain yet another PR disaster. Only as I neared the end of my 11 years in post did that system start to change - but that was a long way ahead.

By happy chance the Sunningdale course I was on was run by yet another old friend of mine, Air Commodore Mike Barnes, like me a former AEO who had retrained as a pilot about the same time as I had done. When I told him I was going to Scampton he was surprised, not that it was I who was going but that there was a Retired Officer post at Scampton. Mike told me over several beers one evening in the Sunningdale Mess, that it was he who had persuaded the Air Force Board to establish the RAF's 18 Community Relations Officers to deal with low flying complaints but it had never been his intention to have one based at Scampton. He also told me that the Red Arrows had been trying for a couple of years or so to have a dedicated public relations post established but they had failed due to lack of money to pay for it. When I told him about the confusing job specifications I had been given, he said that he believed I had been conned into accepting a job I had not applied for. It was soon to become clear that he was absolutely right.

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