Everybody knows to be a little wary of the blurb on the back of books but the pitch for Peter Mandelson's memoir is still a bit rich. Did I really buy TheThird Man because "Much has been written about the man at the heart of New Labour. Now we hear the unvarnished truth from the man himself"?
Describing Mandelson's account as unvarnished is like presenting a Henry Moore sculpture as a lump of rock; you may or may not like it as a piece of art but you can't claim that no work went into its construction!
The Third Man is an outstanding illustration of the power of selective memory and slipperiness of truth. It is also a chilling reminder of the dangers and unreliability of 'reputation management'; if nothing else it teaches us that once you have started it is very difficult to stop. I have read quite a few accounts of the rise of New Labour but I have to concede that I have no idea what happened at any of the key events in this tragicomedy. At the same time, I am fairly confident that only the self-styled "Sultan of Spin" could begin to believe this is the most objective account.
The tricky bit is that it works quite well as an (accidental) insight into many of the problems inherent in Public Relations. Mandelson succeeds in showing why 1980s Labour needed not only a new direction but a new way of communicating that direction, but at the same time eloquently illustrates the perils of image management.
Just as people often say PR is not very good at it its own PR, Mandelson is constantly the exposed as the spin doctor who couldn't spin his own reputation.
"For the best part of two decades I had been defined by an increasingly malign media image. I was Machiavelli with a red rose. the Prince of Darkness. I had managed to come to terms with Mandelson the media caricature. I also realised that I had played a part in its creation."
Mandelson suggests he learnt "the three basic rules of spin-doctoring" whilst briefing journalists at the Havana Libre Hotel in Cuba when he was a delegate to the 1978 World Youth and Student Festival, arguing "a pro-freedom, pro-human rights agenda". Although you might think that in The Third Man world, rule one is, however clumsily, be sure to drop in a few words to make sure everyone knows you are one of the good guys, Mandelson claims they are in fact: "Don't overclaim. Be factual. And never arrive at a briefing without a story."
He may be accused of overclaiming, and of there will be quibbles about about facts, but Mandelson also showed the importance of timing – getting his story out before Blair or Brown weigh in with versions of the same script but with presumably rather fewer of the good lines going to the Third Man.
Anyway, armed with these lessons, the youthful Peter goes on to work for Neil Kinnock.
"It was the the start of my career as a spin doctor. Yet 'spinning' does not begin to capture the the difficulty bordering on impossibility I found in securing more than the most occasional word of praise for Labour."
But he does grow into the job.
"I was even enjoying my role as the spokesman – or more often the stage manager, interpreter and spinner – for Labour in the media.
"Ultimately I saw my role as using any tool at my disposal to ensure that Labour, and Neil, were presented in the best possible light….
… if that meant cold-shouldering those who had made Labour look bad, I saw that too as part of my role."
For whatever reason, Mandelson is coy about the the rougher tools he deployed, going little further than admitting to deliberately tripping over a TV sound lead to end coverage of a particularly disastrous public meeting.
By his third return to government, Mandelson claims to have left spin doctoring far behind, and points to the relatively benign attitude of the media in his spat with George Osborne over the Corfu/ Oleg Deripaska affair: "I was breaking out of of the world of scripted soundbites I had done so much to create."
Repeatedly, Mandeon's career, and his particular telling of his own story, underlines a PR truth that he captures in a comment about the dying days of Gordon Brown's premiership: "Gordon beileved I could 'fix' anything in the press, but as I had learnt at Walworth Road, there comes a point when your product or lack of it outweighs even the most deft presentation."
Perhaps the most telling insight into Public Relations is the ambition he shared with so many practitioners (and academics) to go beyond the discipline and use his skills to better – and worthier – effect. PR talks endlessly about getting a seat on the board, or joining the dominant coalition; Mandelson is desperate for a role in Cabinet.
"Almost as soon as I arrived at the DTI, I felt that I was able to start redefining what 'being Peter' meant. Instead of giving advice to others and enabling them to make decisions, I was taking my own and setting the agenda for the department."
Communicators can certainly learn from The Third Man, but when the author teaches you to question the motivation behind almost every sentence, they are unlikely to learn to how to love Peter Mandelson.
Maybe he just isn't very good at his own PR. Or perhaps the flaw is in the product he is trying to promote…