4 Things PR People Can Learn from Malcolm Tucker

Malcolm Tucker

This is a guest post by Ed Zitron, Twitter personality and EZ-PR founder. SPOILER: It contains some salty, NSFW language.

The movie In The Loop and the British comedy/fake reality show The Thick Of It feature the only realistic PR person in fiction: the beautifully Scottish Malcolm Tucker, played by Peter Capaldi (who is now Doctor Who).

Tucker, the Director of Communications of the United Kingdom, has a style that the word ‘acerbic’ doesn’t quite do justice. Mere minutes into In The Loop, Tucker yells “fuckity bye”; he refers to someone in the first episode of The Thick of It as “as useless as a marzipan dildo.” He’s a true anti-hero — he goes over the cliff of “honesty” into the realm of ferocity, verbally destroying anyone in his path. He manipulates, he tortures (verbally), he storms into rooms and immediately starts saying “here’s what we’re gonna do.” He’s quick, and mean, and cruel, because he wants to fix the mountain of problems the characters of the show create for themselves (and the government).

I have yet to scream swearwords at someone who works for me (or a member of the media), nor have I deliberately told someone to remove something lest they see sensitive information on a cake. But I do have a certain affinity for Tucker, and you should too.

Here’s why.

First, some of Tucker’s very best swearing:

1) Tucker is Direct.

One of Tucker’s signature moves is to storm into a room and shout “here’s what we’re gonna do.” PR people love to schedule calls and meetings and Web conferences to discuss situations to death, but our industry includes a chronic lack of decision-making that so painfully, apparently exists in order to make people feel interesting and important that I think every agency needs a Malcolm Tucker. Somebody, at some point, has to pick up the phone or storm into a room and begin shouting orders, because our industry is beset by “planning” and “strategy” that actually serves to take us further from real life action than we should be.

2) He just wants to know what happened and how to fix it.

Though his wording is a little over the top when he wants to ask directly how bad things are, his ability to do just so is one of the lacking skills in PR at large.

It’s really quite easy to enter a situation and say “oh well, it’s not *that* bad” or “well, how about we really discuss how you feel about it.” These are useless tactics that used to avoid conflict and make the client feel better.

At times, you might not want a client to feel bad, but if they’ve truly made a horrible thing happen, your best port of call is, always, to find out just exactly how far you’re skinny-dipping in the River Styx. That way you can actually fix it.

3) He values trust through consequence over obfuscation

To quote Tucker himself:

“Have you ever travelled like, a hundred miles per hour, head first, through a tunnel full of pig shit? Because that’s what’s gonna happen to you tonight with Paxman, unless! Unless…you listen to us.”

This is a horrible way of wording the idea. A hilarious, horrible, terrible way.

But it’s also totally true and not enough PR people have the strength of will and confidence to just say – though it can be a measure of lies – to a difficult client that they should just bloody *listen*.

The classic response is to tell a client things in a way that makes them think it was their idea — which is actually manipulation and bad all on its own — as opposed to saying “I have done this before, and if you do what you are planning to do you will get destroyed.”

4) He’s realistic and a master of Chaos

Another quote:

“Tucker’s Law: ‘If some c*nt can fuck something up that c*nt will pick the worst fucking time to fucking fuck up because that c*nt’s a c*nt!’ I’ve got that embroidered on a tea-towel at home!”

To translate that: If something bad is going to happen, and someone is going to do it to you, they’ll probably do it to you at the worst possible time.

The underlying theme of The Thick Of It is (truthfully) that the government is in a consistent state of chaos. There is always a problem. Most PR people aren’t dealing with this, but one of the reasons I’ve been able to *succeed* in my business has been from learning to distance myself from the pressure of everyone around me essentially screaming to say, “alright, well, this is bad; how do we un-bad it?” Tucker’s style is more toward (see point 3): actually storming in and yelling until everyone agrees or simply knowing that they will do so out of fear. But any PR can do this if he/she becomes that person who is not *just* calm under pressure but also very good at coming up with something that will actually work.

I have worked for and observed agencies that deal with situations ranging from the not-so-great all the way to the “oh my God, no” in a way that just doesn’t work: by sitting and deliberating. The email comes in from the CEO and no one says or does anything. Hours pass, “things” are done in a tepid manner, and canned statements are released. These statements are usually not followed by the act of actually going to the media in a planned way or preparing a real story to follow, but through hiding, waiting, and hoping it all disappears.

This could be an entirely separate point, but it simply helps illustrate one of the joys of watching Malcolm. There is a speed, veracity and tenaciousness to what he does. Yes, he’s a truly awful human, but he’s also an aggressive wrecking ball of real decision-making and actual statements sandblasted for buzzwords (or, as both he and I would call them, bollocks). Yes, this all occurs within the world of governance, which is altogether more serious and more consequential than the worlds of apps and Indiegogo projects.

But we can learn a great deal from the great Scottish PR-made-timelord.

Now here’s some more creative swearing: