Murder most public

Family, gather round the sick bed. Chaps, hunt down your black ties. We’re in the presence of Dead Law Walking.
The preposterous and increasingly pointless Super Injunction is gasping its last breaths. Pretty soon, we’ll hear the death rattle in its throat. It’s over. It has been murdered, publicly and horribly.
And like some Agatha Christie novel, the victim is so full of stab wounds, it’s hard to know just who struck the fatal blow.
The assault from the Internet has been quite enough to kill it where it stood. Where’s the point in a Super Injunction if Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere tear the privacy veil to tatters? Keeping a story out of the traditional media no longer provides any kind of lasting protection for the publicity-shy public figure. I could float a story on the Internet right now which would reach a million people before it saw a word printed in the press. And before any lawyer could be rushed to the baricades.
Mr Justice Tugendhat may have warned that anyone who uses the Internet to breach a court order still leaves themselves open to a claim for damages. But the good judge is whistling in the wind. He doesn’t understand the Internet. Too many people will pay no attention. Too many will simply not believe him. And when a fierce firm of ferocious lawyers finally tracks down Ernest Hardbottle of 12 the Larches, to duff (in legal parlance) him up for breaching the Court Order, they will find that his only seizable assets are Mrs Hardbottle and the family cat. Meanwhile, Ernest’s “leak” will be carried on by a thousand other voices across the net. Will they hunt them all down, too?
But it may have been Lib Dem MP John Hemming who struck the mortal blow when in March of this year, he used Parliamentary privilege to name Sir Fred Goodwin in open defiance of the super injunction binding us all to secrecy. Maybe it has been bleeding to death ever since .
But if John Hemming’s was not the death blow, the wounded beast could never have survived the battering of the past few days when Lord (”put-em-in-the-stocks-and”) Stoneham, asking a Question on behalf of Lord Oakeshott, completely destroyed any shreds of anonymity that Sir Fred might still have hoped to wrap around himself.
Yes, of course, the dying patient may stagger on a year or two. Three at the most. But who will bother to use it, who will bother to go to the cost and the effort of seeking out a super-injunction, when they know that it simply won’t work ; worse, when they know that their attempt to gag the press, and to gag us all will in itself add wings to the story? If it’s not dead today, the super-injunction is surely mortally wounded.
Yes, of course there’s a place for legal action in matters of privacy. But the Super Injunction is not the answer. And part of the answer will lie outside the legal process. It will lie in the way you work with the press. In fact (and I know many won’t believe this), most journalists are not monsters. They don’t like being lied to, and they don’t like being gagged. But if you are straight with them, then usually they are straight with you (and of course, any good PR operator has his or her little list of “Serpents not to be Trusted”. We know who they are!). Declare war on the Press and , in the end, nearly always, you lose. Much better to work with them, and at least have a chance to shape the story, and to have your version of events heard. And, in fact, a decent journalist is quite capable of being a decent human being. I can think of several occasions where journalists have held back from inflicting further pain, because to do so would be unnecessary and would add nothing to the story. And because journalists are human beings too.
Well, most of them.
And I know they will give the Super Injunction a decent funeral, and a riotous wake.
Terence Fane-Saunders

Furtive and Creepy

What on earth has happened to Burson-Marsteller?

Talking about other PR firms is generally something I prefer to avoid. But today I’m making an exception.

In my own CV, the time I spent as Chairman and Chief Executive of B-M in the UK is something I look back on with mixed feelings. I like to think that at Chelgate we do a number of things differently and, I hope, rather better. But I have always regarded that firm as an important, serious minded and professional business . I think too that it deserves great credit for its pioneering work, pushing back the boundaries of our profession and helping to position public relations as a priority at the highest levels of management strategy. And, like many others, I have also always regarded Harold Burson as an outstanding leader of the profession – a man of decency, high intelligence and rock solid ethics.

So it’s with sour distaste that I read the breaking news of B-M’s central role in the sleazy Facebook ”black PR” secrecy scandal. Quite simply, this is not the way that B-M would have operated in the days when I knew it well, and I am sure that it is not an approach which Harold Burson would have condoned.

But let’s be clear, I’m not condemning negative PR. I wouldn’t like to see it becoming a day-to-day part of our professional service, but there are times when it can have its place. The global campaign Chelgate ran against the Mugabe administration in Zimbabwe is something I look back on with pride, and I believe was fully, resoundingly justified.

But the “Save Zimbabwe” campaign was not conducted from the shadows. People knew who we were and what we were about. In fact, given the death threats I received on an almost weekly basis, we might have had more reason than many to keep our role obscure. But how can you accuse others of dishonesty and falsehood if you are not prepared to be open and truthful yourself?

And nor do I feel that refusal to disclose a client’s identity is, in itself, reprehensible. At Chelgate we have a number of clients whom we have never disclosed. These clients come to us in confidence. We work with them, we advise them, we develop strategies on their behalf, and all of this, I believe, is a matter between those clients and ourselves. We don’t reveal their identities, and we don’t disclose the nature of our work. But nor do we publicly represent them.

On the other hand, when we act for a client, when we argue their case to the media, or solicit the support of politicians; or when, for example, we engage with an NGO, a local council or an academic institution on their behalf, in fact, whenever we act as the go-between for our client with any third party, then of course we indicate who we are acting for. Any other approach would be furtive and creepy. And that’s not howe professional PR should be.

It has been suggested that at least some of the information that B-M was hawking to its contacts was not merely secretly sourced, but also actually false and misleading. I have no idea if this is true. For all I know, that’s negative PR from the other side. Once the paranoia box is open, its difficult to close it again. But that’s not really the point here. In this grubby little attempt to seed negative stories without disclosing their source, they were denying the media (and that means the public, and that means you and me) the opportunity to assess the value of those stories. If you don’t know the source, you can’t judge motive. In this case, source and motive were absolutely central to the story; so central, I would suggest, that the story itself becomes incomplete and misleading if that information is withheld.

Throughout its history, the PR profession has struggled with the damage caused by its grubbier practitioners – the PR hacks, the press agents, the fly-by-night corner shops who live by false promises, operating in the shadows, spinning half truths or downright falsehoods. But that struggle , generally, has been a successful one. And it is firms like Burson-Marsteller who deserve the credit for establishing the profession as an ethical, valuable and often admirable part of the management process. They have led by example. But if senior B-M professionals are now seen to be operating like shadowy, backstreet spin merchants, you have to wonder about the continuing value of that example.

I expect – I hope – that this will be seen to be an aberration; that the Burson-Marsteller management will both condemn this action by some of their staff, and apologise without reserve for what they have done. I expect too that they will explain clearly and publicly what they are doing to ensure that this kind of thing can never happen again. If they do not; if they are in any way half-hearted in their apology and their recognition of fault, then it’s a black day for the PR profession. Because Burson-Marsteller leads by example.

Terence Fane-Saunders