Truth, Nakedness and PR

A career in PR always provides challenges – certainly I am cautious about some of the work I’ve undertaken and have, in retrospect, had to face out some of the poorer decisions I’ve made, such as promoting alcopops. With this in mind, it’s interesting to see that the Climate Camp 2009 protestors have targeted Edelman for its work with Eon and the proposed Kingsnorth coal-fired power station, standing naked in Edelman’s HQ and demanding transparency. They want to ‘expose the naked truth behind Edelman’.

All well and good; transparency is the watchword of the PR industry now, and will become more like a mantra as time goes on, but I think the protestors’ target is a little soft, given that Edelman are already pretty transparent about their client list. There are other, worthier targets that the Climate Camp protestors need to target if they’re serious about transparency and the naked truth, however.

PR has flourished in the last ten years. It’s seen as a glamorous world, despite the critics who argue that anyone entering it is signing a pact worthy of Faust. Despite both of these perceptions, there are many companies that draw a clean line through the industry. Of course, there are also PR companies out there who covertly take big bucks from tobacco briefs (which are still out there, more than ever since the government’s stance on tobacco advertising has changed), from oil companies, big pharmaceutical companies and the odd despot who needs his reputation laundering. That old PR adage, ‘the dirtier the client, the bigger the budget’ still holds true – the money goes towards make them seem and feel clean to the world at large, hides them behind smokescreens of PR.

The world is facing a myriad of challenges in the coming years and the big test now, for anyone coming into PR, is to decide how to tread the line between profit and a clean profile, the ability to be trusted. The Nick Naylor model of lobbyist and PR, based on the amoral fictional lobbyist and PR man in Jason Reitman’s film Thank You For Smoking, is not going to be easy to escape from as the fight for profit gets harder. This is the sort of man who, when asked why the American government is the best in the world, tells his son that it’s “because of our endless appeals system”.

It’s going to become ever more difficult to stay true to one’s core values with the weight of this sort of cynicism bearing down on people who are desperate to make money in a fast-changing world. The bigger agencies demand hard financial returns, sometimes over and above the wants of the employees; smaller companies often just feel the pressure of having to scrabble for work. Bear in mind that 15 years ago, when I gave talks about PR, I used to face tough, searching questions about the work; this rarely happens now. That’s reason enough to worry.

It doesn’t help that the only lesson seemingly being learned from the early release of the cancer-stricken Lockerbie bomber al-Megrahi is that oil buys you freedom. PR can be used all too easily to obfuscate the issues that need confronting – let’s not forget Bhopal or the way the Gulf War was sold. For PR people committed to keeping a clean nose in the industry, transparency means the need to shine a light on psy-ops and dirty tricks – the old school activities of lobbying and public relations. Lessons can be learned from the Climate Camp protestors – and, indeed, by the Climate Camp protestors.

They are passionate fighters, well versed in the direct action movement as exemplified by Greenpeace, but if they really want to make a difference, there are plenty of likelier targets they should be aiming at, naked or clothed. They should be looking into the companies that are nothing like as open and transparent as Edelman. When the Climate protestors really get their teeth into the issue, there are going to be plenty of companies who will be quaking in their boots.

9 Responses to “Truth, Nakedness and PR”

  • Great post, well written.

    Care to start a list of worthy targets for the Climate Camp protestors?

  • The choice of Edelman by determined tactical campaigners may of course have something to do with the illustration of ‘transparency’ by use of bloody big panes of glass facing on to the street.

  • Yes it was a soft target, but in PR terms well-planned and well-executed. And it delivered results in the nationals and has generated lots of conversations.

    Whats disappointing is that both Edelman and Climate Camp claimed that they wanted to talk to each other, but failed.

  • As I have posted elsewhere, my offer to the Climate Camp guys remains open – still happy to talk.

  • Mark:

    I’m sure Edelman were delighted with the coverage they received this week. It certainly wouldn’t stop me working with them in the future.

    What Climate Camp fail to understand is that many companies have ‘less than desirable’ clients but they frequently tend to be the ones that pay the bills. Climate Camps refusal to speak with the Edelman UK CEO just goes to illustrate that they didn’t have anything in terms of interesting dialogue to bring to the table and therefore resorted to a mediocre stunt to get some coverage.

    One of my clients manufacture missile systems. I’m very happy to be working with them and will continue collect their cheques. If people want to come and stand naked outside my office because of it then personally I would consider that a major benefit of having them as a client. Oh and defence protesters, only the hot ones please.

  • Paul Wooding:

    Mark, your post is the most sensible piece of commentary that I’ve read on the Climate Camp / Edelman story…or non story as I feel it has become.
    In my mind, Edelman was such a soft target that there was never going to be an acceptance of talks by the Climate Camp. Do that and the story is dead. Play it out that big bad PR agency wouldn’t engage and the story both stays alive and gets higher billing.
    As you allude to above, there is a perception of PR agencies from the bad old days, and I’m sure this was utmost in the protesters’ minds when they looked at targets. This wasn’t direct action, this was a PR stunt, and one that clearly worked. Us PROs aren’t hated as much as estate agents or politicians but there’s still a public perception (or should that be stigma?) that the media rely upon when covering the industry and fair plays to Climate Camp for realising that and using it.
    Have to say that I have been slightly disappointed with some of my peers trying to make capital out of the issue with tacit suggestions that Edelman realised this was a PR opp and played loose with its offer of talks. From what I have read and understand the offer was made and – from the protesters’ side it was quite rightly ignored to ensure media coverage, end of story.
    Couldn’t agree more that there are far more opaque targets to go after.

  • Becky Cane:

    “Most people have this image in their heads of tobacco executives jet-setting around the world on private planes, eating foie gras as they count their money. Not me. I like to ride with the people. Know your clients. My people cram themselves into a tiny seat, pop a Xanex, and dream of the moment when they can stuff their face with fresh tobacco. If I can convince just one of these kids to pick up smoking,
    I’ve paid for my flight. Round trip!” Nick Naylor

  • Abbott Hoffman:

    Whilst i understand the points being made. Most of the arguments here are being framed around the bottom line, profit. But the point you miss is that Climate Campers don’t give a crap about profits of large multi-nationals or mid scale PR companies. Why would they, it’s not hard to see what they are doing and how they are doing it. If Edelmen want to represent a big carbon producers like E.ON, what can they expect? After all, they are promoting a business model that is going to push us all into a much more unpleasant future. Would everyone jump to their defense if they represented British American Tobacco or BAE Systems, not so sure you would.

    And let’s not kid ourselves about why Edelmen want to talk, let’s ask ourselves why? Cause they want climate justice for all or because they want to appear to be open and transparent and thus sustain their profit margins. Climate change campaigners have a term for this – Greenwash.

  • Eve:

    There’s a misunderstanding here that relates to the sloppy media coverage of the event. We were not campaigning to expose that Edelman represent Eon, as the media have portrayed it. That is common knowledge!! We were protesting at the campaign of spin that Edelman run.

    Looking at it from that angle, it was not a weak target. Eon want to build the first coal-fired power stations in the UK for 30 years, which would lock us into a fossil-fuel-based economy for decades to come. An estimated 400 species will be made extinct by this one power station alone. Its emissions will be that of Nepal. Just that one power station. This would push us beyond tipping point into climate chaos.

    Edelman run a campaign of Greenwash in order to portray Eon as the green energy company. They refer to “new coal” (same as the old coal) and “clean coal” (just as dirty as before), and bleat incessantly about Carbon Capture and Storage, the technology which will save us all from climate change. Terribly sorry Edelman, but that technology doesn’t exist yet, and will be brought in at power station level no sooner than 2050. Given the technology doesn’t exist, there’s no guarantee we’ll ever see CCS.

    So to the author – I appreciate your article. Given the media coverage I totally see where you’re coming from. However it’s been an unfortunate issue of sloppy media totally failing to get to grips with the issue we were actually trying to highlight. I guess the more times we strip off in a lobby, the more they’ll have to pay attention. We’ll find out.

    As to discourse, we really don’t want to get into a heated debate over a distraction (playing into Edelman’s hands), but suffice it to say we couldn’t exactly run away from a conversation – we were glued on in the lobby!! Had Mr Phillips got up from his twitterdeck and stepped into the lobby he’d have got his conversation. But that wouldn’t have been good PR, would it.


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