Opinion: Could honesty be the best policy?

I recently renewed my acquaintance with a wise man who has packed more into half a lifetime in corporate PR and reputation management than most of us could ever hope to.

His great success in PR followed a previous career as an award-winning international broadcaster.

'The trouble is today I spend half my time telling people PR isn't what they need, that it doesn't have the answers,' he opined.

Interesting but not great for business, I mused.

'Maybe not. But too many people are conned into thinking that PR today is the penicillin for all ills. It's not. If the product, service or performance isn't right in the first place, PR isn't the answer.'

But surely, I countered, PR doesn't need to fool all of the people all of the time. You can shift most things by convincing some, maybe quite a lot of people, that the hype's for real? Then everyone moves on happy and richer?

'Then you are just selling Elastoplast,' said the wise man, shifting his medical metaphors with the adroitness of the smooth PR man he is.

'Once your fancy sticking plaster drops off, the bloody truth is there to be seen. And it will look uglier for having tried to cover it up. In terms of reputation everyone loses - especially the PR industry, which looks shallow and conniving.'

Shallow? Conniving? I curse and reflect on these thoughts. 'Is PR really what you need?' doesn't sound like the commercial sales pitch for recessionary times.

And yet maybe we should all be a little more honest about our limitations as well as our fabled powers.

If the product or the reputation we are asked to hype or fix really is rotten, then do our businesses really profit by complicity in concealing that fact?

We are seen as a zeitgeist profession in the multimedia age. PR is taught at university: it informs policy, creates markets and adds lustre to reputations.

But how many of us offer two-way pitches? We show what we can offer while potential clients pitch their credentials honestly to us.

Could it be that The Only Way Is Ethics?

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and a former executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun

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