Opinion: Truth will out, prevent it at your peril

Who is advising Britain's most famous couple, Posh and Becks? They are perpetuating the image that they are happily married and continuing to be all the things that 'brand Beckham' set out to establish - the 'brand' was dubious to start with and is even more so now. Why does this matter? Well, the recent publication of the UK edition of one of my favourite anti-PR books Toxic Sludge is Good for You! makes the point very well: associate yourself with 'sludge' or 'sleaze', and the image sticks not just to your client but to you.

It seems strange that while public life itself is saturated with a debate about trust and authenticity - journalism itself is going through the ringer post-Hutton on exactly these issues - some quarters of the PR industry, from politics to pop, continue to behave as if all you need is a message, not necessarily a 'truthful' one.

As soon as Posh Spice gave an interview to Marie Claire categorically denying that her husband had been unfaithful, when Sky News and the News of the World had paid their lawyers almost as much as Rebecca Loos to substantiate their evidence, I knew that her PR machine would stop at nothing to continue the myth, advising that to tough it out is to win out. This is bad advice. You don't have to tell your client to tell everything, but you do have to tell them to tell the truth.

I know some of you will think I'm on a particularly high moral horse here. I advocate dumping clients or bosses who are asking you to essentially misrepresent them. I'm not talking about representing difficult issues, or complex ones with 'two sides to every story'. Maintaining that Gordon Brown and Tony Blair are best buddies is stretching credulity, as is saying 'Read my Lips: No New Taxes' and then going ahead and raising them.

The PR industry is here, it seems to me, not to inflate distortion but to prevent it. This means establishing the full mucky truth with your client and working out whether it is indeed possible to favourably present them without getting some mud on their shoes.

If it isn't, the answer, however painful in the short term, is never to pour whitewash on the situation. This undermines credibility, increases the whispering campaign and can wither shareholder value faster than you can say your own product is 'crap'. Tell the truth persuasively - or don't be in PR.

Julia Hobsbawm is professor of public relations at the London College of Communication. Kate Nicholas is on maternity leave.

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