Rules for the Conduct of Public Life

The Truth must dazzle gradually. Or every man be blind. – an interesting aphorism from the pen of Emily Dickinson.

Sipping a lukewarm soya latte served by a man wearing a comedy moustache in a breathlessly contemporary Shoreditch caff, a client declared “I guess PR is all about crisis these days”; fascinating point of view.

At the time, like the caff (no, I’m not going to name it – it doesn’t deserve the benefit of a negative riff), I put it out of my mind as yet another exaggerated view of the misunderstood craft of modern public relations. Later, while shuffling back to office, his presumption reasserted itself.

The woe of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Party is out there for all to see, and for many people to feel. Chekhov apparently once said that any idiot can face a crisis, but that it is day-to-day living that wears you down. I’d like to suggest that the daily tyranny of social media might be added to this wearing-down process. Since its inception, the yoke of responsibility has become harder to bear for most people in the public eye.

The Liberals’ immediate reaction to this crisis has been to deny all knowledge of the sexual misdemeanours occurring under their watch. Such denial of knowledge, and thus responsibility, is becoming increasingly commonplace. From the senior management at Barclays bank in the wake of the LIBOR fixing scandal, to George Entwistle as the Jimmy Savile affair blazed on, it seems that nobody in a position of power knows what is going on below them these days.

In the digital era however, hiding behind ignorance isn’t as easy as it may have been in the past. It doesn’t take much digging to find a paper trail, and chronicling wrongdoing when a scandal breaks as a means of proving or disproving guilt is becoming standard practice in the news.

The crowd’s capacity for distrust attacks the weak and sullies reputations on a daily basis, rather like the medieval stocks. Public figures are tried by social media and judged for their sins; just look for the indelible stain of rotten tomatoes as you browse the media.

The avalanche of Twitter retweets must be utterly perplexing for the political spin machine. Robust PR has always been a game of solid advice delivered by independent consultants with a helicopter vision, consultants able to look at a client’s universe from the outside in. Internal, hubristic advice can miss the obvious as it is encumbered by myopic hope. Administrators and hope-holders pray that a maelstrom will pass, despite knowing where the locked cupboards are that store the familiar hanging corpses.

It’s time to wake up. Reputation damage isn’t just caused caused by what you know and what you are able to bury. Total transparency isn’t just a sound bite, it’s a reality – and falling in the comedy cow pat is avoidable if you face the worst case scenario. It’s not what you know that breaks figures – it’s what you don’t know. True, trusted help should be centred around rigorous governance that doesn’t let matters slip.

Unfortunately, the devious and the Machiavellian are thick on the ground. I like to refer to them as Subterranean Pond Rock Scum: happy to enjoy the perks of the job, these creatures edit the work description for greater gain. Finding those authentic, true and trustworthy is extremely challenging.

The post-Thatcherite, capitalist belief in success at any cost has created a generation of individuals blessed with the ability of conversing from both sides of the mouth. They trade in the speech equivalent of a linoleum: a cheap veneer to cover rotten flooring, adept at manoeuvring away from the mess that their stupidity has fashioned. Check for smiles and laughter: these people are great at hiding the facts because the difficult stuff might threaten their position.

If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers. Unfortunately, there are few defences when the tsunami hits.

So what are the key attributes required to be a modern day PR, if the gig is all about crisis? Consider this: enduring reputations are earned and must reflect proven capabilities, values and accomplishments.

The expanding digital and social media universe amplifies reputational risks and feeds off the weak and unprepared.

Business brands and individuals face intense collateral damage and need to monitor their reputations in a way never seen before. Clients require experienced, battle-hardy, intelligent support as value is derived from what is understood, more than who is influenced.

If you haven’t the stuff, the moral compass and intelligence for the Now! Economy, pass on by. PR isn’t about clipboard Nazis, Yes men and women, or fluff and bluster. It’s about bright heads and formidable experience. Ask the difficult questions and dig deep. Challenge those you trust.

I’ll leave the last word to Banksy: “Your mind is working at its best when you’re being paranoid. You explore every avenue and possibility of your situation at high speed and with total clarity.”

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