News Analysis: Toxic Sludge falls short on delivery

The UK edition of Toxic Sludge Is Good For You! has hit the shelves. The London CEO of Ketchum - one of the agencies attacked in it - assesses its arguments.

It's hard to produce anything other than a mix-ed review for the first UK edition of Toxic Sludge Is Good For You!: Lies, Damn Lies And The Public Relations Industry, by US media critics John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton.

Anything too negative will sound like a capitulation to the back cover's pledge to 'make life for executives at Hill & Knowlton, Ketchum and Burson-Marsteller a little bit more difficult'. And anything too positive would be, well, dishonest.

In short, Stauber and Rampton chart the rise of the US PR industry through the 20th century, correlating the success of powerful consultancies with the demise of fundamental American political and economic values. Armed with media contacts, knowledge of human psychology, and loads of corporate dollars, these agencies have 'stolen our dreams, and returned them to us as packaged illusions', they charge.

Little relevance in today's climate

Sound interesting? It should be, at least to those of us in the business, working in the shadows to steal dreams and subvert democracy. Unfortunately, Toxic Sludge falls short of the mark, offering instead a dusty reprint of a polemic first published in 1995. I had hoped to be challenged; instead I was bored.

The truth is Toxic Sludge wasn't a great book then, and the UK introduction by Robert Newman hasn't made it any better in 2004. The case material is old - nothing more recent than 1994 - and almost entirely American.

The potentially juicy bits - the colourful anecdotes of shadowy PR practices and methods such as video news releases and crisis scenario planning - come out a little tired and limp as well. Will anyone really be shocked that businesses want their products to look good on TV or hope to convey their side of the story in an emergency?

Even the more troubling, if isolated, examples of Cold War-era excess and abuse - such as 'spies for hire' and the use of private investigators - seem less than catastrophic in comparison to recent breakdowns in accountancy, corporate governance and even journalism. No PR consultant worth his or her salt would agree that deception has any place in today's commercial environment.

These may not be fatal flaws for a book, but they beg the question of relevance and make for tedious reading. Worse, the authors are so worried about the power of PR in the hands of 'big business' (although by their own admission not above searching for a PR-friendly and commercially driven title for their book!) that they fail to see the big picture.

Businesses haven't embraced PR to put distance between their goals and the objectives of the public; they've done so to bring them closer together, because their survival depends on it.

For most of human history, those in power have cared little for the opinion of the masses; now they are completely dependent on the whims of public opinion, and know all too well how quickly these can change. Some have done better than others at responding to the needs of the public, but the fact that they now care has to be a good thing, even if you disagree with what they have to say.

The rise of a small industry to help organisations understand the public seems not so much a cause for alarm, but a reassurance. Public opinion is now firmly established as a crucial factor in sustaining a free democracy, a market-based economy and a civil society. This, too, seems like a good thing.

And the authors' assertion on the last page that 'the polluters' are more effective by virtue of their larger budgets is simply disingenuous.

Anyone who thinks groups such as Greenpeace aren't fully shaping opinion, policy and consumer behaviour through effective and low-budget public relations is either naive or removed from reality. And that's the beauty of it. Great campaigns don't require millions of pounds or friends in high places to succeed - they simply need to strike a chord with the public. Some succeed, many fail, but nobody has a monopoly on effective PR.

To underscore this point, turn to the internet. Today anyone with a point of view and a weblog can reach the entire world, instantly and constantly.

The authors are to be forgiven for failing to appreciate the equalising potential of the 'information superhighway' and blogging back in 1995, but the new edition falters by failing to acknowledge such a dramatic development in democratisation.

Important points made

This isn't to suggest that the authors don't score a few important points.

For starters, consultancies need to be as careful selecting their clients as clients are in procuring our services. While every legitimate business arguably has the right to be heard, consultancies should think long and hard about the kinds of client they will accept and the impact that some may have on employees and other clients. At Ketchum, we have declared clients in industries such as tobacco and arms sales off-limits for just this reason.

And, as the authors suggest, the PR industry does need to continue to police its activities against the very highest standards of professional conduct, and bodies such as the PRCA and PRSA (the Public Relations Society of America) need the full support of all consultancies, large and small, to do so.

Likewise, ethics need to be emphasised as strongly as writing and comms theory at the university level and in continuing development programmes for practising professionals, which suggests more robust collaboration between the industry and the academic community. This, too, is something that major agencies are addressing with leading universities in the UK and US.

And for the suggestion that members of the public need 'to become actors on their own behalf', nothing would be more welcomed - the bane of successful comms is not ignorance, but apathy.

Should you read this book for yourself? Sure, if you've got the time and patience. But it's only a matter of time before a more current and engaging book is written that fully tackles the issues of media, influence and consumption. Toxic Sludge isn't that book, today or in 1995.

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