Reputation Threat


I think it's time for a little healthy paranoia.

If you are a high profile individual, or if you hold a top position in a high profile organisation, or if what you do is intrinsically interesting, then, yes, you should be paranoid. Assume you are under attack. An army of people is after your secrets. They may be sitting in a back room of a Moscow apartment; they may be lurking at a table next to you in an airport lounge, or even in that car with blacked-out windows parked discreetly outside your house. They may be anywhere. But what they have in common is that they are looking for information you don't want them to have, and they have the tools to extract it.

Of course, you may operate in an environment of meticulous care, where your commercial and business secrets are safeguarded and protected with professional skill and rigour. More and more enterprises are recognising that safeguarding confidential information has to be one of the basic fundamentals of good management. But that still leaves your personal life unguarded, and that can just as surely destroy your professional reputation.

The threats to our privacy are growing exponentially, as smart technology worms its way into every corner of our lives. There is a well-publicised report now being investigated by the Information Commissioner of LG smart TVs on sale in the UK feeding confidential information and data back to the manufacturers in Korea. Even simple household appliances seem to be morphing into sinister tools of intrusion, with reports from Russia that hidden microchips had been discovered in kettles and irons imported from China, and that these were there to pump spam data and malware into wi-fi networks, allowing confidential data then to be sent to a foreign server. Not a story you'd necessarily believe, but you wouldn't want to bet your career against the possibility, either.

Recently I took part in a presentation to a group of generals visiting from a friendly third world country. A colleague with a security background caused an uneasy ripple when he showed them how easy it was to transform their mobile phones, undetectably, into wireless microphones broadcasting everything they said, and the meetings they held, to be listened to on his own phone, wherever he happened to be.

The same colleague also showed how easily and quickly the entire contents of your phone can be downloaded, if you leave it in the wrong hands for just a few minutes. At government offices and embassies around the world, he insists on removing the battery from his phone before handing it in. “It doesn't prevent them getting at it, but it makes it more difficult”. Perhaps a reason to choose a phone with an easy-to-remove battery!

I'll leave it to others who are better qualified (and at Chelgate we work with several) to talk about the challenge to corporate confidentiality, and the ways of building better protection into your business. But the people cracking open your secrets are not just looking for commercial information. They are after your reputation, too. All the recent talk of phone hacking is really only the glimmering tip of a very large iceberg.  Hugh Grant may never have his phone hacked again. But his privacy will still be far from secure.

Law firms are coming at the same problem from the legal perspective, and ending up in much the same place. Keith Schilling explained to me over breakfast recently how Schillings had acquired an IT security company, and you can see how that makes sense. You want to keep your clients' privacy safe, if you can. But if it's compromised, you need to know how and by whom if you are going to be able to put it right.

For PR professionals working in Reputation Management, Reputation Protection has become an increasingly central part of the job. A vital part of this is helping our clients to protect their privacy, spotting when it has been compromised, and moving quickly to counter the damage. Sometimes a vital part of the response will be a legal one, and PR firms increasingly need to work closely with their colleagues in the law. But at other times the legal route may not be either the best or the quickest way to contain the threat. But this will depend on a bunch of different factors – scale, motive, accuracy and source being just a few. A PR firm with Reputation Protection skills will have a range of tactics it can deploy, both online and offline, usually faster than any legal process can be put in place. But often, the most effective response will be a broad spectrum one, using IT, PR and legal responses to re-establish control.

Of course, prevention is better than cure, and the professional PR practitioner needs to have at least a basic understanding of good privacy practice – sufficient at least to conduct an initial review of client vulnerabilities. They may be as secure as the Bank of England when they in the office, but what do they do when they are at home, or travelling the world. Just how secure is their wireless network at home? Do they use public networks when they travel? When they settle down for the evening in that charming Kuala Lumpur hotel, and they connect to the hotel network, just how private are they? Or, if you are Chancellor of a great European nation, should you really be spending hours every day texting on your insecure personal phone?

Of course, even if your personal privacy is absolutely watertight, that may not be enough, which was another point Keith Schilling made as I wrestled with my morning croissant: “Who knows what photos are being posted and stories told by the VIP's children to all their friends on Facebook?”

In fact, these days, anyone holding down a high profile job should have a proper Privacy Audit to check on potential vulnerabilities. It's hard to manage reputation if your every minor indiscretion, embarrassing faux pas or domestic issue is potentially out there on public view. At Chelgate we know enough to offer general guidelines, and to know whether you need one. But this really requires very expert capabilities which we don't pretend to have. But we know people who do, and that audit, and the strategies springing from it, need to form a cornerstone in any high sensitivity Reputation Protection programme.

Terence Fane-Saunders

PR in the Shadows

We keep a pretty low profile at Chelgate. Much of our work is quite confidential, and we say little about most of our assignments. But what we would never do is to represent a client or a cause to the public, or to any third party, without making it clear exactly whom we are representing. PR people will remember the fuss last year when Burson-Marsteller were secretly hired by Facebook to run an anonymous campaign against Google.

But now we seem have run up against a similar situation in a planning battle we are fighting in Yorkshire, and this suggests a style of PR that our profession really has to leave behind.

We are retained by commercial/property interests to fight plans to plonk a giant superstore on the edge of the beautiful little market town of Malton, on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. This is one fight where my business interests and my heart are happily intertwined. I spent precious years in and around Malton watching my children grow up. Harm it at your peril!

The people of Malton are overwhelmingly against the plan (evidenced by market research) and the town council oppose it too. They know that it will suck the lifeblood out of the wonderful gaggle of little shops in the town. But the District council, who stand to benefit from a £5 million payment from the developer, have supported the plan. So much for localism! Selina Scott wrote two wonderful articles for the Telegraph and the Daily Mail warning of this threat to that lovely little town. Many others rallied to the cause.

Thanks to a successful legal challenge, the initial planning application (backed by the district council) was thrown out. But last month, the developer kicked off a new community consultation as a prelude to the submission of a new planning application. Hearts sank across Malton. Back to the barricades!

And then, coincidentally (?), last month also, a new campaign popped up, notionally promoting Malton: ‘All4Malton’, with Facebook, Twitter and a website too. At first glance, it simply looked like a supportive campaign to boost the town, with items about the Malton Food Festival, and the town's links to Charles Dickens. But it only takes a few moments to realise that half the items it carries are actually designed to promote the threatened development. Even items not specifically about the development are clearly designed to serve it. So, there are repeated references to parking problems in Malton, with readers being encouraged to send in their ‘Malton parking horror stories’. And guess what? Parking is one of the key claimed selling points being pushed by the developers. Another is the fact that the site will include a petrol station – so of course there's a box encouraging the public to tweet for lower petrol prices.

Our principal client in this assignment, the Fitzwilliam Estate, who own a great deal of property in Malton, and are desperately worried about this threat to the little town, is attacked and smeared (‘the Estate doing their usual scaremongering’), but nowhere, in any of all this aggressive propaganda is there any acknowledgement that it's not just an impartial initiative to promote Malton. We are not told who is behind it, who is publishing it, who is paying for it. It's an attack from the shadows.

I've no problem with a good, healthy publicity battle. In fact, I rather enjoy them, and of course we fight lots of them. But creepy little anonymous campaigns, hiding their true purpose and concealing the identities of the shadowy people who are pulling the strings, represent the squalid end of our profession. They probably also tell you a lot about the developer too.

At least Burson-Marsteller, which is a fundamentally decent and professional outfit, apologised, and recognised that this wasn't the way for professionals to behave. I have a feeling that whoever is behind this little enterprise will be much more reluctant.

Of course, I may be entirely wrong. This may all be the work of people who simply love Malton, and are entranced with the idea of a superstore on the edge of town; so entranced that they go to these great lengths to support their passion. In which case I am happy to apologise to all concerned. But I'm peering out of my Tanner Street window right now, looking out at our little park, and I can't see any sign of a single flying pig.

Terence Fane-Saunders



So, here we are again. Just over three years since outgoing MPs were secretly filmed making sleazy deals with undercover journalists posing as lobbyists, a virtually identical sting appears to have caught out even more parliamentarians.

In many ways, the offences allegedly committed this time round are even more egregious . Last time, outgoing MPs agreed to work for lobbyists once they were out of office . This recent sting apparently saw MPs and Peers agree to table questions, set up All-Party Parliamentary Groups, and otherwise abuse their position in exchange for payment.

It seems mad to me that anyone in Parliament who remembers the 1990s would willingly agree to table cash in exchange for questions; you’d think they would have realised that this wasn’t going to end well. But in any case, if these reports are indeed fair and accurate, (and perhaps we shouldn’t jump to conclusions just yet), it seems that at least a few Parliamentarians felt, for whatever reason, that such behaviour was acceptable, or that they at least would not be caught.

All this has led to renewed calls from politicians and the media for a statutory ‘register of lobbyists’, which, whilst predictable, is a bit of a non-sequitur , as not a single lobbyist – registered or not – was actually involved in this affair. Given that politicians were apparently the only people found to be misbehaving, one would logically assume that they would be the main targets for opprobrium and punishment.

Instead, while a few figures in the media and in Parliament have seen this as a renewed impetus for a ‘recall’ bill, or for more rigorous standards for parliamentarians’ conduct, most have focused their ire on lobbyists, and specifically on proposals for a statutory ‘register of lobbyists’.

I have long been sceptical about the sense, usefulness, feasibility or desirability of a statutory register. I would like to think that the fact that the government has so far failed to implement one, as promised in the coalition agreement, points to the fact that some in Downing Street  agree.

In fact,  the term itself is not one I would ever ascribe to myself or any of my colleagues at Chelgate. As I’ve written before, the word “lobbyist” itself reeks of negative associations. The general public tend to think of lobbyists as “shady, rat-like creatures scuttling through the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall, wheedling, inveigling, whispering and beguiling as they corrupt the processes of power on behalf of their paymasters.”

Beyond the superficial image problem, this view is simply factually inaccurate. Professional government relations is not and should never be confined to the ranks of full-time lobbyists. In fact, it’s very difficult to unpick PR from “lobbying”. It’s often only after we begin work for a client that we realise that we may need to engage with the political process in order to achieve their aims. If one of our account executives was not a “registered lobbyist” and was leading a project for a client, only for it become clear that some political engagement was necessary in order to achieve his client’s objectives, would he be obliged to bring everything to a halt and tell the client “sorry, I’m not a registered lobbyist, you’d better go find one”?

This problem would apply to many other firms, too. More traditional consumer PR firms, which do not consider themselves to be ‘lobbying’ outfits, may find themselves unable to provide the full range of services that their clients need, or else may need to re-skill and refocus on lobbying in order to make the cost and effort of registering worthwhile. Remember, the importance of MPs for our profession is not restricted to their ability to regulate or legislate. They are opinion leaders and vectors of information. They write articles, send letters to editors, make speeches all over the country (not just in parliament), offer media comment, take part in panel shows. They are mini media maelstroms, generating attention and shaping attitudes. So of course they will be legitimate audiences for PR professionals. How ridiculous to think they are so precious and susceptible to improper influence that only registered lobbyists might be allowed to brief them on anything.

But even specialist, full-time lobbyists recognise that few successful PA  campaigns can be based solely on targeting politicians. Any worthwhile Member of Parliament will allow his or her opinions to be shaped by a small but essential universe of information and opinion , including their constituents, the media, other experts and professionals. A “lobbying” campaign that takes no account of these other audiences and points of influence would be pretty crass, clumsy and likely to fail.  So the proper lobbyist is not a denizen of the Westminster shadows. He or she has to operate in the daylight of public opinion where arguments are made and challenged, information offered and tested. It’s a healthy process and one which enhances communication between Parliament and the rest of the country.

I also have doubts about the prospect that this statutory register would force firms to make all their clients public. But this doesn’t mean that I am in favour of secretive or underhand representation.  In circumstances where we are directly engaging with policymakers, elected officials, civil servants and the like, Chelgate always makes clear who we are representing. This is the right thing to do from an ethical perspective, and it simply makes sense if we are to engage with these stakeholders in a useful way.

But bull-headed supporters of the bill are pushing for a much broader disclosure requirement, which would require firms to disclose all of their clients, whether they are actively ‘lobbying’ for them or not. This is a seriously senseless  proposal, especially given the woolly thinking on how exactly lobbying should be defined.

The Commons committee looking into the statutory register last year sifted through myriad definitions of lobbying, and ultimately could not decide which one to use. If the legislation were to define lobbying too narrowly – say, as an individual employed by a firm, who makes direct professional contact with elected officials on behalf of a paying client – it would be far too easy to get around. It seems more likely that the government might opt to cast a wider net, including anyone – freelancers, in-house staff, agency staff – whose work involves directly engaging with parliamentarians or, crucially, advising or assisting clients on engagement with parliamentarians.

Some clients engage us when they are not facing an acute crisis or issue, but seek our services in developing a crisis management plan in case the need ever arises. The broad definition of lobbying that is currently attracting the most support, seems to mean that we would have to disclose our work for such clients, even when the work is entirely precautionary, and part of a broader plan in which direct political engagement may only be a minor part.

Chelgate, offers a specialist crisis and issues management service. Many clients who engage our services are facing sensitive issues that may their affect share price, consumer confidence, staff morale and brand image, among other variables. By  making public the fact that they have engaged a specialist in crisis management,  these firms may exacerbate the very crises they have engaged us to manage. That is why more than half of our clients ask us to sign a non-disclosure agreement. But even without that NDA in place, we see no reason why private consultation with Chelgate should be a matter of public record

Such a drastic shake-up would perhaps be understandable, or even desirable, if unethical behaviour was found to be widespread throughout the PR industry. But that simply isn’t the case. We have seen a few politicians make tremendous errors in judgement, some acting with incredible stupidity and others with an apparent disregard for their obligations as parliamentarians. We have seen the media engage in underhand campaigns of entrapment which would never be permitted to the police, for example.  And yes, one or two slightly stupid PR and government relations professionals have boasted unconvincingly about their levels of access and influence. But there is really no evidence of a corrupt or malign public affairs profession in need of regulation and registration.  How politicians react to improper inducements from journalists pretending to be public affairs professionals has no bearing at all on our profession – any more than a pickpocket dressed as a priest would tell you anything about the clergy.

Some might argue that if these regulations had been in place beforehand, this latest scandal would not have happened: the MPs and Peers in question could have looked at the register and seen that these fake firms were not legitimate. These individuals’ apparent greed and disregard for public office would not have come to light. Politics would have continued as usual. But it seems strange and wrong-headed to apply onerous and unnecessary restrictions to our profession in order to prevent parliamentarians from abusing theirs. And you can be sure that the journalists concerned would have found a way to adapt their approach. Regulating the public affairs profession won’t protect politicians from themselves.

Instead of facing up to the problems within their own domain, some in politics and journalism have opted to go after a scapegoat. They are proposing unworkable changes that will fundamentally hurt the ability of businesses, NGOs and private individuals to make their case to their publics. They do nothing to stem the loss of trust in Parliament, or to sort out the problems in their own ranks.

If that is the lasting legacy of this scandal, expect to see history repeat itself before too long.

Terence Fane-Saunders

Arrested Reputation

Over the past year, we’ve seen countless “celebrities” arrested , suspected of the most horrific crimes. Many have subsequently been charged, some have pleaded guilty, and others have protested their innocence. Some, however, have been arrested, publicly shamed and humiliated, had their reputations dragged through the mud, only to discover that the police and the Crown Prosecutions Service have decided not to charge them with a crime.
The howling headlines in recent months have often concerned alleged events dating back years, even decades. This creates obvious difficulties for prosecution, with evidence uncertain, detail fading and memories perhaps less certain than they were. But for the subject of the allegations, the passing years create similar problems in terms of rebuttal. How do you prove a negative, especially after so many years? What evidence can there be to prove your innocence?
When these arrests have led to convictions or confessions, they have provided victims with a long-overdue sense of closure and of justice being done, but when they are fruitless, they can lead to appalling suffering and humiliation for the wrongly accused.

Incidences of arrest without charge have been on the rise , particularly in high-profile cases. There seems to be a clear and growing trend of arresting individuals, questioning them and then releasing them on bail. In many cases, arrest for questioning appears to be used as a substitute for interviewing subjects under caution, or having individuals voluntarily “help police with their enquiries”. It has been suggested that this is because arresting a suspect enables police to search the suspect’s home and property without having to apply for a search warrant. So the arrest becomes a fishing licence. Whether that is the reason or not, it’s certainly true that the trend has moved sharply towards the “Arrest First, Talk Later” school of investigation.

As a matter of policy, police are not meant announce the names of those people they have arrested. If this rule were properly adhered to, arrest would not need to be considered so destructive . A traumatic episode? Certainly. A reputational issue? Absolutely. But not a career-ending crisis.

In reality, though, the names of high-profile people who have been arrested are routinely leaked to the media. The finger tends to be pointed at the police, but celebrities are often surrounded by a gossiping gaggle, all-too- ready to pick up the phone to a friendly reporter. Indeed, the media has become so accustomed to knowing the names and details of high-profile suspects that they now complain when the police follow their own rules. (

It is this pattern of revealing the names of arrested suspects to the press that poses the most serious reputational problems for those who have been arrested, especially when the crime in question is particularly abhorrent in the public eye.

Being arrested does not, of course, mean that one is guilty of a crime. Yet the press and the public are never keen to emphasise this. Arrest and guilt are conflated in the public mind, with the press leading the charge. The attitude towards those arrested is that “there’s no smoke without fire.”

Social media worsens this problem. Even if the police do not reveal the arrested person’s name, Twitter often figures it out. Once the name is out in the public domain, social media can allow libellous gossip and innuendo to spread like wildfire. “Innocent until proven guilty” is trampled under the feet of the mob, and the laws of slander and libel are drowned out by the din. The McAlpine scandal may have made some think twice, but the reaction to at least one recent celebrity arrest has demonstrated that the appetite for crass, poisonous and uninformed gossip is still a social media characteristic.

There are, however, ways for arrested individuals to fight back and protect their reputation, however much the deck is stacked against them. Chelgate has several pieces of advice it would give to almost all clients who have been arrested for a crime they did not commit.

First and foremost, a swift, strong denial is absolutely essential. One needs only to look at the example of Andrew Mitchell’s non-denial of the specific allegations made against him to see the risks of equivocating and delaying. If you are innocent, say so in the clearest, boldest terms possible. Leave no room for speculation.

Secondly, take control of the information flow. Strike first. Become the primary source of information about your own story. If you are a high profile celebrity, you must assume that the media will pick up the story. But if you do what many do, skulking quietly, hoping you might just escape attention, you will be the loser. When the media break the story, there’s no reason for them to mitigate or qualify; in fact, quite the opposite. The worse the story sounds, the more attention it will command, and for many journalists, that’s the primary consideration.
So be the first to put the facts in the public domain. Make sure these facts are your facts, structured and presented in the way you’d want , and they are more likely to become the established media narrative. Never let social media or gossip columnists dominate the discourse.

Thirdly, we advise our clients to make full use of the law to defend their reputations. In fact, in the majority our reputation crisis assignments, we work in very close partnership with the legal team. Lord McAlpine did us all a favour by turning his abhorrent treatment at the hands of social media into an opportunity to strike a blow for privacy. Clients now have the confidence that they can hold poisonous, vicious gossipmongers to account for the libel they commit, no matter what medium they use. This is already having a noticeable effect on the way social media users have reacted to high-profile arrests, and further legal action will only strengthen this.

It is disappointing, but that we cannot trust the police always to follow their own rules and keep the names of arrested individuals confidential. More must be done to ensure they comply with these guidelines, and that legal action to secure this is certainly not out of the question. Likewise, police and prosecutors should have a stronger obligation to publicly exonerate individuals they arrest but do not subsequently charge.
In the meantime, however, arrest without charge, trial or verdict seems to be becoming an established police procedure. And people whose reputations have taken decades to build now find those reputations reduced to ruins, almost overnight, with little or no opportunity to clear their names through legal process. Where that happens, the ability and skill to take on and challenge the poison in the Court of Public Opinion becomes a matter of life and death for the individual’s reputation. For the wrongly accused, that’s a battle that needs to be won.

Terence Fane-Saunders and John Ringer

The PR of terror

It’s too early to know whether the Boston Marathon bombing was the work of “organised” terror, or the deranged act of an isolated individual, but either way, acts of terror need to be seen for what they are : obscene and warped expressions of “black” PR. I prefer to call this anti-PR.

Usually, the action itself is a good step or two away from the actual purpose. We are not witnessing the destruction of a munitions factory, for example, or the interruption of strategic and military capabilities. The Twin Towers, in themselves, posed no actual threat to the people who destroyed them, and we can safely assume that the perpetrator of Monday’s malevolence had no particular aversion to long-distance running. Quite simply, these were acts of “anti-PR” – grotesque and evil stunts , designed to communicate particular messages. And in the mad , negative-image world of anti-PR, much of the criteria and thinking were chillingly familiar to most PR professionals : planning, timing, platform, media visibility, impact. We can speculate on the message intended through the Boston bombing, and at some point it will probably become apparent. But of this I’m sure: the message, not the act, was the purpose here. In the same way, 9/11 might be seen as an attempt to demonstrate American vulnerability, to shatter occidental hubris, to show that American cities could easily be exposed to destruction, or to deliver a dozen other possible messages. But it was obviously never simply an attack on two skyscrapers.

For those responsible for countering an act of terror, it is essential to understand and counter the purpose of the terrorist act, and that purpose, nearly always, will be anti-PR : the delivery of a message, the creation of “understanding”, a shift in attitudes and perceptions (maybe, with intended panic) , a grab for headlines and recognition. This is horribly difficult, because, whilst the event will often convey many of its messages with almost immediate and brutal force, the processes of response are not naturally structured that way.

The nine stages of atrocity go this way:

First, the event. The bare act imposes itself first on those it immediately impacts, then on the news media. “A bomb has ripped through…..”, “Twelve students have been shot dead….”
Second, the human story. Just as our thoughts and hearts turn immediately to victims and survivors, so the media lenses and journalist pen-portraits follow the same path. The eight year old boy killed, his sister horribly injured just moments after their father crossed the finishing line. The media search inanely for emotional connection: “How did it feel when…..?” Victims are immediately sanctified and celebrated .

Third, hunt the demon. There is a human need and a media hunger to identify the perpetrator, to blame, condemn, demonise. If you have saints, you must have demons. And this need rushes ahead of any need to comprehend. If, walking to work, someone hits you on the back of the head, you wince, and then you turn to see who did it. Only after that do you wonder why. And the same applies to acts of public terror. Encouragingly, bitter and hard-won experience is perhaps beginning to modify this response among both media and public officials. And more positively, there seems to have been no kneejerk rush to pin guilt upon a perpetrator: in Britain we began to learn this after the release of the Guildford Four and tragically after the 7/7 London bombings; in America, it has been learned more recently. We can be thankful for this. Any attempt to bait and provoke by these attacks has been undermined by this mature response – though the silence of the Boston perpetrator(s) suggests that baiting was probably not their intent, since they’ve provided nobody to retaliate disproportionately against.

Fourth, anger and grief. As the scale and the details of the atrocity become evident, so anger and grief become powerful driving forces, with massive media and political potency. It is here that a managed response can be most difficult and yet most important. The perpetrator has probably committed this act with very specific, carefully calibrated objectives, and aspects of anger and grief will probably be high on the list of intended consequences. But the media, the public and the politicians and officials who represent them often seem blind to the fact that their reactions may be exactly the response intended .

Fifth, defiance. Judged well, this can be a powerful and valuable response. Churchill was a master: “Hitler and his Nazi gang have sown the wind. Let them reap the whirlwind.” (This in the same speech as his famous “Some chicken. Some neck!” Well-pitched defiance can boost morale, stiffen resolve and undermine the enemy. But one of the first rules of conflict propaganda is never to make statements that your audience disbelieves. Do so and you immediately devalue every other statement you make. Perhaps the most colourful example was “Baghdad Bob” (Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf), Saddham Hussein’s Information Minister, who reduced his role to buffoonery and farce, not merely by lying, but by lying so obviously.
Quite often, though, misjudged defiance is not intended to deceive. It’s simply a naive venting, with no understanding of the processes of propaganda. In the case of the Boston Marathon, the UK Sports Minister’s statement this week that he is “absolutely confident here that we can keep the (London Marathon) event safe and secure” created a complete discontinuity between popular knowledge of reality and the narrative he was attempting to construct. How can he possibly be absolutely confident? Of course, the event may well turn out to be “safe and secure”, but the certainty is false. Responses of this sort are of no use: public officials don’t reassure but alienate their audience and sabotage their own purpose when they say the incredible.

Sixth, self-cannibalism. This is more a characteristic of democracies , with a free press, than of restrictive societies and dictatorships. Even though the perpetrator may be clearly identified and universally vilified, there is a hunger (whether driven by media or political imperatives) to find associated blame in the victim society itself. Inadequate policing, poor intelligence, budget cuts, political “dithering”, liberal laws have all been cited in the aftermath of recent atrocities. And here may lie one of the perpetrators’ purposes, seeing a community turn on itself.

Seventh, tokenism. Here, the event itself can become a kind of shorthand, a symbol. Much will depend on who constructs and commands the shaping of that symbol, and how effectively they do so. 9/11 become an emblem and expression of a nation’s defiance, of innocence maimed by an act of Evil; in Britain, 7/7 rather less so, in part, perhaps because of unease over the police killing (almost, execution) of innocent suspect, Jean Charles de Menezes. But tokenism , and the battle to shape and define lasting symbols is central to the war between PR and anti-PR.

Eighth, mythology. This is tokenism carved in stone. The Hindenberg disaster was not an act of terror. But the same principles apply. The lasting mythology, supported by dramatic , horrendous, uncompromising imagery, turned the entire world against a form of transportion which until then had been full of purpose and possibility. Terrorists work to shape that lasting mythology. Those working against them have to counter that purpose. But too often this defensive process is accidental, incidental, without shape or strategy.

But if the Hindenberg imagery killed an industry, the potential power of visual imagery in the 21st century is a million times greater. Social networks, and universal camera phones mean that an act of terror in Boston can be filling television and computer screens in Tokyo within minutes. It’s been widely reported that when al Qaeda or other groups in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria bomb troops or public places, very often the attack will be filmed and uploaded to the web. Arabic- and Pashto-language websites exist to distribute them – since YouTube operates a censor – to an audience of mainly young people interested in watching the footage. And footage is in demand in the West, too.

For both audiences – the supportive and the critical – the attack footage is important because of what it represents subjectively. The objective content of the attack is obviously important, as it provides the basis from which a subjective meaning can grow: the attack has to happen before we can begin interpret its symbols. But it’s the subjective content that gives the video (or, sometimes, the image) its irresistible gravitational pull.

A public act of terror – transmitted to us so viscerally and digestibly in visual form – takes on meanings for each viewer that extend beyond the attack itself. And what we can be sure of, today, is that most of the groups launching these attacks understand the importance of these multiple, subjective meanings: they understand their capacity to unify, to provoke (perhaps to provoke over-reaction), to intimidate and to inspire. Those who understand the subtlety of their macabre work also understand the risks, including the risk of over-reaching and thereby appalling their own supportive or wavering constituencies.

To return to the Boston Marathon, there are a few puzzling characteristics. Firstly, the timing. Because the attacks came so late after the elite racers had finished, there were fewer media cameras trained on the finish line area, so the impact was lessened, both in terms of the visual record, and of course in that the “celebrity athletes” had long left the scene, along with most of the media. Images of post-attack suffering and reactions have been plentiful – but images of the attacks themselves have been sparse (though much repeated)
Secondly, the target is puzzling. Analysts will be asking what makes a running race into a target: what can it symbolise to the intended victims, and what does it symbolise to those who might be hoped to support the attack? It’s a non-military target; it is not a high-profile commercial target; the race is not an icon of national unity. Like the 7/7 attacks in London, it may aim to expose the susceptibility of quotidian life to disruption, and to create a discomfort and fear for one’s own safety that extends into the everyday routines – into commuting, or into regular sporting events. But that purpose is far from clear, and divorced from any strategic narrative, lacks purpose in itself. Interestingly, too, there appears to have been little in the way of authoritative claims of “credit” from established and recognised groups, and the perpetrators do not appear to have attempted to position their act within any kind of coherent (albeit twisted) narrative. To me, most of the signs point towards a disorganised, unstructured action by an unbalanced individual, or a small number of individuals, with little strategy or organised purpose other than the expression of some malformed, personal need.

If the attacks themselves are all about symbolism and meaning, how do the authorities reply? They will respond with symbolism of their own, in good time. But first, using verbal or written statements, they will attempt to meet the symbolism of the attack with the framing, explanatory power of a narrative. But will this be done with proper, professional understanding of the world of warped symbolism and reverse reality which anti-PR can create?

Narrative, or strategic narrative, is the story that gives events their coherence. For those experiencing the attack on the street, the narrative is very limited: it is one of raw experience, and meaningless danger, something that’s been well-described as “pure event”. The narratives for the rest of us follow later on: we build them for ourselves first, and as we catch up on news coverage we merge our own narrative with the wider story being told through the press and media. Through these narratives we contest the meanings of attacks and of their images, and with them we attempt to influence others’ views of the events.

Narratives are the structures we use to understand attacks, and a leader or public figure will always attempt to influence those structures in the wake of an attack like this.
But there are limits to how far we can persuade. One of the lessons of the First World War was that you can’t spin narratives that are wildly different from reality: a narrative of heroism and honourable struggle can’t be maintained when audiences know the reality of carnage, of the “hell where youth and laughter go”. That war brought on a rebirth of irony, as it offered onlookers a way to understand the vast gap between ugly truth and censored narrative.

By contrast, the reactions of the Boston Mayor and of President Obama have been cautious, though the President was more forward in promising justice, and eventual knowledge of who was behind the attacks. Obama also hesitated to label the event a terrorist attack – though he didn’t designate it as criminality, either, as the FBI has. President Obama has interpreted the attacks as a chance for unity in Boston, a chance to “pull together, take care of each other, and move forward as one proud city” – a rather stoical approach.

As the attackers deliver the events, images and videos – carrying a slightly different significance for each onlooker – it’s the responder’s immediate challenge to deliver a framework for interpretation. Their own images and events may follow – tanks absurdly parks outside Heathrow in 2003 or anti-air artillery on Westminster Bridge in 1938, for example. But those images can be and should be managed within a strategy of carefully managed narrative.

Framing these narratives is difficult: the task is not simply crisis management. It is PR as a weapon of war. It demands true understanding of the techniques and implications of black, grey and white propaganda. It pitches PR against anti-PR in a strange world of constructed realities. Some Presidents and Prime Ministers may have their in-house experts. Mayors don’t tend to (though this one has done a fairly good job), and corporations, public bodies and individuals almost never do. This PR isn’t the daily bread sort: it’s very rarely needed, but when it is needed, it has to be delivered fast and expertly.

Terence Fane-Saunders and Frankie Evans

Witch Hunt Season

Earlier this week, before the “Witch Hunt” fuss, I had written this on my Facebook page:
“Treading on eggshells here, but I’m growing increasingly uneasy about the post-Savile paedophile witch hunt. Yes, I am sure there are vile and powerful individuals who have managed to avoid detection, and they must be found, exposed and properly punished. But we seem to be edging into a world of Guilt By Accusation. Almost every allegation now is being treated as ex cathedra unquestionable truth. BBC presenters ask why abusers’ names should not be published , as they are “all over the Internet”, without any thought that, just perhaps, they are not in fact all guilty. The grim and squalid truth of these situations is that, in addition to horrible truth and tragic victims, there can be mischief, fantasy, greed and even mass hysteria adding dangerous and false dimensions. True victims and true justice deserve careful, measured and painstaking investigation, not a witch hunt. Perhaps it’s time to re-stage The Crucible in the West End?”
The next day, Philip Schofield “ambushed” David Cameron on TV with a list of “top Tories” plucked off the Internet where the Twitterati had been claiming they were paedophiles. Cameron’s response, and his warning about the danger of a witch hunt, were a powerful echo of what I had written.
For those of us working in issues and crisis management, the paedophile frenzy of the past week or two has been a stark reminder of the way things have changed. Quite simply, you cannot rely on the law any more to protect the reputations of the innocent. Yes, of course, someone who defames you online is just as much legally liable as the journalist who does so in print. But there is often much less you can do about it.
One well-known gutter blogger who regularly publishes wild and defamatory stories on his blog truly relishes his position. “Come and get me!” is his message,pointing out that he has next to no assets, next to no income. ”So, are you going to waste your time and money pursuing me for damages?”

But even if you can swat a defamatory blog here, or trash a libellous Tweet there, it may do you very little good. The story, if it’s juicy enough, will be off and running, across Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and the blogosphere. You can’t pull it back. Pandora’s box is open. The evil is out.
Yes, of course, there are things you can do. But it’s much harder now, and most people simply don’t know where to begin. For businesses, the message is quite straightforward: make sure you have a strategy. If you are hit by an online reputation firestorm, that isn’t the moment to begin thinking about what to do. For private individuals, it’s much harder. Most people won’t have personal crisis management plans in place. Their lawyer may not have the answers they need. And yet, it’s private individuals who are perhaps most at risk from this brave new world of online character assassination. And that’s probably why Chelgate’s crisis management work for private individuals has jumped from just one or two cases a year to become a significant part of our business. That’s good for our bottom line. But it’s not good or fair or just. The innocent deserve protection, and even the guilty have the right to be judged by a court of law, rather than by a swivel-eyed mob of on-line fanatics carrying burning torches.

Terence Fane-Saunders

There’s a Sheriff in Dodge City

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...

Image via CrunchBase

Social media can be a seductive environment. It can seem intimate, private, just you and a few friends chatting and joking. But the moment you go into writing, the same laws of libel apply that might apply to anything else you publish.

The High Court judgement in the Cairns v Modi case just a couple of days ago,  saw the happily anarchic world of Twitter brought suddenly face to face with harsh legal reality . Here former IPL Commissioner Lalit Modi was held to account for his Twitter post claiming that former New Zealand cricket star Chris Cairns had been barred from the IPL because of his “past record in match-fixing”.  The High Court found that Mr Modi had “singularly failed” to provide any reliable evidence against the cricketer, and slapped him with a £90,000 damages bill, and an even more eye-watering £400,000 in costs.

For many people, this will be a reassuring reminder that the world of social media is not the wild west.  Laws do prevail. There’s a sheriff in town. When a business faces a Twitter storm of rumour and allegation, there are a number of possible strategies to deploy, and one of these most certainly is the legal option. But that said, it’s never a good move to launch a legal assault to protect your reputation without very careful reputation management processes as part of your strategy.  That’s as true with social media as it is in the off-line world.

But the Cairns v Modi case should also set a few gentle alarm bells ringing for some businesses.  In the last year or two, as the commercial world has come to recognise the importance of social media, more and more companies have launched themselves onto Twitter and Facebook.  But as they have done so, a slightly odd characteristic has emerged.  Where most articles and public statements emerging from the organisation are subject to careful scrutiny and double-checking, very often social media activity is delegated to an individual, or a small group of individuals, who chatter and twitter away  in a state of happy and informal autonomy.  There may be few, if any, of the normal checks and safeguards that apply to the company’s other pronouncements.  And yet, the topics for social media debate are often the most contentious and sensitive of the all the issues the business might be facing.

Perhaps the simple message of Cairns v Modi is this:  Twitter and Facebook are part of the “real world”, and that means accountability and liability. The Law has come to Dodge City.

Terence Fane-Saunders