Go back to the roots of the business in the early part of the twentieth century and ‘the father of PR’ Edward Bernays – at that time advising US President Woodrow Wilson – unwisely argued the democratic judgement of the public ‘could not be relied upon’.
In the 100 years since, PR has suffered many publicity crises of its own, from the ‘astroturfing’ groups in 1960s America, right through to last month when PRWeek revealed Ruder Finn had been hired by the controversial regime in the Maldives, a story that alerted global media and Amnesty International.
The fact is controversy and crises inevitably attract PR professionals, because they are the experts in handling ‘hot issues’ in the public domain; the sort of issues that can make or break reputations.
This does not imply that PR is essentially a malign discipline. There are equally as many examples where professional comms advice has made organisations do ‘the right thing’ – once they have been forced to listen to the public consensus and adapt their actions in a positive way.
Last week, I wrote about the PR industry becoming a force for corporate good amid the new climate of aggressive shareholders. Since then, the ‘shareholder spring’ – as some newspapers have now dubbed it – has brought down two more chief executives; Trinity Mirror’s Sly Bailey and Aviva’s Andrew Moss.
Under this scrutiny, big corporations are being forced to become more transparent and accountable. If comms professionals can drive this agenda and turn it into an opportunity, rather than a threat, it will boost the PR industry.
Does the same principle apply to geo-political PR; for example in the Maldives or Bahrain? Their PR advisers, including Lord Bell and Ruder Finn’s Emmanuel Tchividjian, are claiming it does; that their involvement will ultimately make their paymaster regimes act more ethically. But PR’s contribution to better ethics is difficult to prove, particularly in the case of a distant foreign government.
The media – which tend to view PR as an inherently sinister force – will continue to dispense harsh, summary justice. So the wider industry must stand up for its professionals, where they are making a positive contribution.
But amid this complex, muddied war, the individual professional must act according to his or her own highest conscience, otherwise we are fighting what will ultimately prove a losing battle.