Last week I could be seen writing furiously on the train on my way to my
second breakfast talk to the Public Relations Consultants Association in
Victoria. They wanted me to stimulate them before the sparrows coughed
on ‘The challenge to PR in the age of sleaze’. Long before I had reached
their HQ, I had worked myself up into the sort of controlled detonation
which I used to reserve for the Lobby.
I didn’t argue over whether we lived in the age of ‘sleaze’. Whatever I
may think, the nation’s sleaze police - the media - believe we are
wallowing in it. They should know. After all, they are widely accused
of anything from trivialisation, distortion, invention, sensationalism,
intrusions of privacy, entrapment, buying up witnesses and an abuse of
power. If it is necessary to set a thief to catch a thief, they are
eminently well qualified for sleaze-busting.
There is a problem in the sense that the media inhabit an Alice in
Wonderland world in which ‘sleaze’ is anything that they pronounce it to
be. But at least you know where you are: sleazy unless you can prove
yourself whiter than white. What is more, you don’t have to be charged
with any offence to be ‘sleazy’. Ask Ian Greer whose lobbying business
has been destroyed by the cod-faxing Guardian.
I then argued that the challenge facing the PR industry was all the
greater because of its own image. It still had a muck ’n magic aura,
however exquisite its social graces, because it could not scientifically
measure the impact of its work. Worse still, it was often accused of the
very failings of our sleaze police.
The irony of its neglect of its own image was compounded by its recent
failure publicly to argue the case for part of its business -
professional lobbying. It had also failed to educate the average
businessman on PR’s potential. They mostly still regard PR as an
optional extra - something you hire when you get yourself into trouble
rather than to keep you out of it.
But this age of sleaze, I argued, also presented the PR industry with a
wonderful opportunity. After all, PR is fundamentally about
establishing, maintaining and enhancing reputations. No reputation worth
having could be built on serious deficiencies in a product, service or
individual. Nor could one be maintained, still less enhanced, on the
basis of facile, short-term PR. Reputations have to be tilled
Responsible PR is thus the enemy of sleaze. Provided we work at it, it
should not be difficult for PR rapidly to acquire a more reliable,
accurate and wholesome reputation than the sleaze police. Before we know
where we are, the media might even feel the need for our services as
distinct from manifestly requiring them.