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Corporate Watch : Newsletter 19 : ?We're Dangerous?

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Chris Grimshaw

The shady world of public relations is now seeking to clean up its own public image, with the profession's national Institute applying for a Royal Charter. Will this mean they won't be able to LIE anymore? Unlikely...

The public relations industry claims to directly influence as much as 80% of the content of the news media in the UK, but outside industry circles the trade is shrouded in secrecy. PR companies do not promote themselves widely, and major players like Hill & Knowlton, Fleishmann-Hillard and Chime plc. are virtually unknown to the general public. After all, it's hardly possible to conduct openly the cold-blooded business of selling access and influence over the media and governments. That is why most PR agencies tend to describe their work in an artfully vague fashion, and to publicly flaunt only the work they do for worthy or innocuous causes.

At the same time, the public relations industry is aware of its own embarrassing public relations problem. Widespread cynicism about spin and advertising are now leading PR companies to look for ways to improve their own image, and the Institute of Public Relations (IPR) is working harder than anyone else to address the situation. So where better to look behind the façade of this most secretive of industries, than at the IPR's Annual General Meeting 2004?

In spite of recent poor publicity, the atmosphere at the AGM was bullish. Delegates and officers of the Institute were optimistic about the future, and self-congratulation was the order of the day. Membership has trebled in three years, and a recent “anti-spin” summit with the press, conducted by the UK’s first full-time Professor of Public Relations, Anne Gregory, had apparently gone well. Apparently, since the April 1 meeting was held under Chatham House rules, meaning total confidentiality. Now, the IPR is applying for a Royal Charter as one of its main projects, and it looks likely they'll succeed. Becoming the Chartered Institute of Public Relations is intended to give IPR members a more professional image, and help distance them from the more shady PR operators. With chartered status will come the image of integrity and, as they like to say in the business, “perception is reality”. The IPR's slack code of conduct and complaints procedures are not supposed to change under the new charter. Unfortunately, in public relations, a certain moral flexibility can be a very valuable asset. But even the existing codes seem to be too much for two-thirds of the eligible workers in the industry who have chosen not to join the IPR, including many senior PR officers at big agencies.

The annual lecture at this year's conference was delivered by Slovenian PR guru, Dr Dejan Vercic. The speech was a rallying cry for the industry. His argument proceeded from the premise that PR originated, and is only widely practiced, in western democracies, to the absurd conclusion that it is therefore “the essence of a free society, market economy and political democracy”. One may as well say the same of the Big Mac or the concept of “collateral damage”.

After the main speech, one questioner raised the uncomfortable issue of ethics. As a chartered institute, would members be required not to lie even when it may profit them to do so, as with medical professionals? Vercic acknowledged the seriousness of the question: “We’re dangerous!”, he exclaimed, “we have more and more power because of our knowledge of a certain social technology…[which is why] we need to be regulated”. This last suggestion was received with little enthusiasm.

Afterwards the champagne flowed freely, and it was time for informal networking. This writer moved in for a few sherbets and some off-the-record comment. One PR officer with Chime plc, one of the UK’s largest PR groups and itself a subsidiary of the vast conglomerate WPP, was happy to discuss the seedier side of public relations. On the unmentionable subject of “negative PR” - the practice of killing stories before they’re printed or before they become major issues in the news media - he confirmed that there was “more and more of it these days”. He added that it's very hard to trace the practice, let alone control it, because it's simply a matter of “individual phone calls” between PR officers and journalists.

Another delegate who has been working in PR since the 1950s offered some interesting anecdotes from his long career. In the 1970s, when reports began to appear around Nestlé’s sadistic marketing of milk substitutes for babies in the developing world, he worked for Cow & Gate who were implicated in similar scandals. “We were too late to stop the story”, he confided, so they had to adopt a different strategy. He took on the contract to provide publicity and educational materials for indigenous peoples, explaining the need for using clean or purified water in the formula. “That, to me, is what PR is all about”, he added with some pride. Cow & Gate was criticised as recently as 2001 by the International Baby Food Action Network for unethical marketing practices.

The delegate went on to recall another case from the 1970s, in which he felt he had done a good job. At the time Friends of the Earth was planning to target Coca-Cola in a campaign over glass recycling. He organised a meeting with them in which he explained Coca-Cola's good works - among them sponsoring educational materials for schools entitled “Man and his Environment”. Somehow this persuaded the campaigners to leave Coke alone, and target Schweppes instead. It was clear from his story that he really believed the Coca-Cola corporation takes environmental issues seriously…but then he was paid to believe it.

Whilst PR agencies routinely proclaim the need for their clients to be transparent, their own operations are increasingly shrouded in secrecy. Most companies do not provide comprehensive lists of clients, many of the largest of them do not even publish their annual turnovers any more. Inquiries after specific activities are invariably met with refusal, on the grounds of client confidentiality. There is no sign that the PR industry has really acknowledged the roots of its own PR problem.