Opinion: PROs have the power to shape the future

If you ever tire of real PR, try the fictional kind. This is what some historians are doing with the 'what if?' trend of revisiting key moments in history to ask how the world might have looked if events had panned out differently. BBC Radio 4 is onto its third series on the subject. I won't say that this has quite replaced Trivial Pursuit or Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? as a national parlour game, but it is tempting to apply the rules to PR.

What If David Beckham had not deployed that most unhelpful of PR tactics, the non-denial denial? Did posing for happy-couple shots as alleged lovers flew out of the woodwork minimise the effect of accusatory front pages?

No. He was ill-advised by his PR people who failed to tell him the most basic rule in a crisis: Come Clean Immediately. Or he ignored sound advice.

What if Max Clifford had not stepped in to help Rebecca Loos sell her story? In fact, what if Clifford had decided to become a plumber instead of a PR agent? How different British media history would look (and British politics to boot, not forgetting the David Mellor family photocall that backfired so memorably).

PR's role in the course of history is greater than the rise and fall of individuals, be they icons or irritating politicians. PR can wield great damage just as well as helping to achieve great things. Let's not forget that the Ku Klux Klan was made powerful through devastatingly effective PR. As Scott M Cutlip writes in his classic history book The Unseen Power of Public Relations, the Klan was just a defunct club in the southern states of America until two Atlanta publicists capitalised on the Red Scare of the 1920s and built its membership to a staggering three million within three years ('never again' often follows 'what if').

On the other hand, look at the history of the Suffragettes. I would not have the vote if my erstwhile sisters had not flamboyantly, bravely and highly publicly campaigned for universal suffrage a century ago.

'What if?' in reverse is actually a defining characteristic of proper public relations as we know it today. Our job is partly to anticipate consequences, planning around a range of outcomes of which we are not always in control.

If you cannot exactly predict the future, you can change the course of your own corporation's. It will be interesting to see what Vodafone does in light of the Beckham text sex accusations. Like real history, you couldn't make it up.

Kate Nicholas is on maternity leave.

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