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

Registering Interest

I’ve tended to shy away from calling the Chelgate political relations team “lobbyists”. I know what springs to most people’s minds when they hear the word : 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. Well, that seems to be what the St Paul’s squatters think in any case.
But I’m not planning to discuss how lobbyists came to have such a contaminated reputation, nor even whether it’s entirely unjustified. But I am going to argue that good, professional political relations consultants are actually a benefit to society.

Business people don’t have all the answers, but they do have some. They understand the realities of the marketplace. They know about production and distribution. They learn how to manage. They have to control costs and drive sales. And if they can’t manage their finances, they go to the wall.

But in many ways this nation is a bigger business than any of them. And you’d think that the people entrusted with the task of managing the enterprise and balancing the books would have all the experience and expertise this demanding task takes. But the truth is that only 19% of all current MPs have a background in business, with a further 15% coming from the financial world. So, I suppose we should count ourselves lucky – given their inexperience and lack of qualifications – that we don’t find ourselves plunged into a financial crisis, with a runaway deficit, minimal growth and unsustainable levels of public spending.

Good government listens to the business community. And it draws upon the expertise and experience it finds there. And when it does so, we all benefit. But business needs to talk to Government too. It knows that Government decisions, its regulation, legislation and fiscal policies, will all shape the landscape for business in this country. And it’s right and fair that that business should present its arguments, make its case, offer its advice about matters of concern to it. But this needs to be done properly. There must be rules of engagement, codes of behaviour, restraints and balances. Without that, you have a jungle, where the richest, the most ruthless and and least moral enjoy levels of access and influence which wholly undermine the principles of good government. Anyone who works in international business can name a long list of countries where this is the case.

But not the UK. Because here we have a well-established set of procedures and practices setting out the ground rules for the way business communicates with Government. And we also have a well-established government relations profession – some might call them lobbyists – who understand those rules, and who work to ensure that the voice of business is heard, but in a way that is ethical, honest and transparent. Or should be.

So, I do welcome steps to tighten up the rules governing the lobbying profession. But at the same time I worry that this might become one of those “stampede” causes which end up rushing blindly, too far and too fast, straight over the Cliff of Lost Common Sense. In particular, we need to differentiate between advice and representation. When my firm represents a client – whether to Government, the media or any third party, we do so openly and honestly. Our interests are clear, and so is our client identity. But when another client comes to us for advice, not representation, then I can see no good grounds for demanding that this should be a matter for public disclosure. We are, we should remember, confidential advisers, and that confidentiality is a professional attribute, not a cloak of shame.

In an earlier blog, at the time of the Burson-Marsteller / Facebook “Black PR” story, I wrote this:
“ 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 how professional PR should be.”

Public affairs and government relations advisors should be able to operate as professionals. They should be able to advise in confidence, and their clients should know that not just the content of the discussion, but even the fact that it has taken place, will remain confidential if that’s their wish. This is no business of anybody else. Indeed , for some clients, even the fact that they are seeking advice from a particular consultant could be a matter of sensitivity if made public. But when that consultant moves beyond consultancy, and begins to represent , that is when we need true transparency. We have to be quite clear about who is acting in the interests of whom. And that’s when we should have a compulsory register of lobbyists and their clients – but reflecting representation, not turning private consultation into a matter of public speculation.

The signs, though, are that the lobbying / public affairs profession in this country has difficulty differentiating between the two functions. And the concept of confidentiality seems ready for sacrifice on the altar of transparency. Maybe the profession is cowed by recent scandals. Maybe it has trouble distinguishing between confidentiality, secrecy and deceit. But the (in many ways admirable) Association of Professional Political Consultants demands that “members must disclose the names of all their clients and consultants in the APPC register”, stamping firmly on the thought that anyone might be able to go to an APPC member for discreet and confidential advice, without finding the fact promptly disclosed in the Register. The UK Public Affairs Council, on the other hand, seems unwilling or unable to distinguish between representation and consultation, blithely conflating the two in its decree that “lobbyists are those who, in a professional capacity, work to influence or advise (my italics) those who wish to influence the institutions of government in the UK”

In advocacy and representation, we need transparency. But this firm at least will never deny clients the opportunity for private, confidential consultation and advice without finding their name listed in some register of lobbyists’ clients.

Terence Fane-Saunders

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

In Confidence

I have just been reading a blog by PR exec George Snell. He was giving the inside story on an assignment a few years back, when he was asked to set up interviews for Saif al-Islam, Colonel Gadaffi’s son, to talk about the release of the Bulgarian nurses who had been held in Libya on charges that they had infected Libyan children with HIV.
An interesting little blog, but it made me feel very uneasy. A large part of our business in Chelgate is devoted to issues and crisis management and I do believe that in this area especially, certain codes have to apply. If professional, high level strategic PR is to be taken seriously, and if it is to play its proper role in shaping and managing sensitive and troubling situations, then clients should expect rigorous standards of confidentiality from their advisers. There should be no conceivable risk that a few months (or even years) later, some PR gun-for-hire will emerge from the shadows with his (or her) “inside story” .
Many of our clients ask us to sign Non Disclosure Agreements, and that’s fine with us. But it shouldn’t need an NDA . If you claim to be a professional in this business, then you should act like one. Nobody forces you to work for the client in the first place. And if , once you are working for them, you decide that they are unacceptable for any reason, then you give notice. But you don’t take their money, and then betray their confidence.
Some years ago I left a firm where I had worked on a number of very sensitive crises. A few months after I left, one of my former team appeared in the media, plastered all over a national magazine, talking about his crisis management skills. When I read his accounts of assignments that we had worked on together – assignments that I had always considered to be confidential and private, I felt , literally, physically sick. I felt, somehow, that I had been party to a betrayal of trust.
Of course, there may be times when overwhelming moral or legal imperatives make some degree of disclosure necessary. And then you must do what you have to do. But if strategic PR is to be treated as a serious and important discipline, then it’s time its practitioners behaved like grown-up professionals.

PR and the end of the Monarchy

So, as the “King’s Speech” rumbles towards the Academy Awards, bursting with well-deserved Oscar nominations, here in Britain we’re also dusting off our party gear in preparation for the Royal Wedding. And this has set me thinking about the monarchy, and how it’s coming to an end.
Let me say straight away that I quite like having a Royal Family. It’s a bit like old age. You complain about it until you start thinking about the alternative. Then you feel that cold lurch of horror. Oh God, King Dave. Or Emperor Ed. So, yes, you can line me up on the Royalists’ side.
The sad fact, though, is that we’re destroying an institution that most of us would prefer to retain. And what is destroying it is a fundamentally flawed PR vision. The media, the public and even the Royal family themselves have all now decided that our Royal Family are little more than a rare breed of uber celebrity, and that’s how, increasingly , they are coming to be treated.
You may remember the old Latin proverb: “Whom the gods would destroy, first they feature in Hello Magazine”. Those Romans knew their fagioli. Personal publicity can be a heady and intoxicating brew. It seems it’s no longer enough for a celebrity musician or footballer or film star to be known for their music, their football skills, or their performances on the silver screen. Now we must listen to their solutions for world hunger, admire their taste in interior decoration, and absorb their views on breast feeding, the environment and naval destroyers. Really, it’s simple vanity: firstly, to believe that that their narrow professional talents somehow validate them as people, intellectuals and arbiters of taste and secondly to believe that the more people know about them, the more the public are exposed to the “real me”, the more we’ll love them. Not many of us are wholly loveable when the “real me” is truly revealed. Mother Teresa perhaps. And Ernest Uthershaw from Bootle. But that’s probably about it. Certainly not many footballers, actors or recording stars.
The press of course, for their part, won’t rest until they have sucked every hidden corner of the celebrities’ lives dry – their love lives, their religious convictions, their family problems, their battles with the bathroom scales or the bottle of bourbon under the bed. We probably know more about the private lives and intimate secrets of some public figures than we know about our own friends and neighbours; even perhaps, our own families. And the more we learn, and the more information we swallow, the more we digest, the more bitter the reflux.
And this is the mistake we are all making with the Royal Family. Monarchy is not about people; not real, flesh and blood, living, thinking, breathing people. It’s a pageant, a pretence, a performance in which performers and audience contract together to suspend disbelief. Occasionally, we the audience are allowed onto the stage to play our bit parts. When we bow or curtsey before a member of the Royal Family, we know that we are performing a charade. The person standing before us is no better than any other normal, flawed member of the human race. They are not more intelligent, more generous, more noble in spirit. They are not braver, wiser, stronger or more perfectly formed than the next man or woman on the number 19 bus.
Or, at any rate, they are not necessarily so. Yes, over the centuries, there must have been wise, brave and beautiful kings and queens. There will also have been clowns, cowards and incompetents. Just like the rest of us, then. But this doesn’t matter. Or, at least, it shouldn’t.
We all know the truth. Of course we do. Monarchy is an act, a tableau, a representation, a play. And, as in any theatre, there is a contract between the performers and their audience. We pretend it’s real. As Juliet reaches out her hand to Romeo, what we see is that innocent girl child, doomed by fate and the tender desperation of her first great love. We do not see a 24 year old actress with two kids, a footballer boyfriend, a cocaine habit and a holiday home in Marbella. That’s the only way it can work. We accept the role as the reality. If we allow it to be coloured by all we know of the actor playing the part then the performance is doomed from the outset.
And this, really, is why our monarchy is doomed. In the 19th century, when an englishman in some far corner of the empire raised his glass to “The Queen”, he really knew nothing about the dumpy little lady to whose health he was drinking. He was drinking to the role. To the Queen. And that was a role which commanded unqualified veneration.
But now there seems to have been a shift, an insidious, dangerous rethinking. More and more it seems that the PR strategy guiding the Royal Family is geared to promoting their attractions as individuals, as “personalities” whose exceptional qualities somehow justify the palaces and the pomp in which we swaddle them. Now, I happen to think that Prince William seems an excellent young man, and his fiance has barely put a foot wrong. I also think there’s a great deal to admire about Prince Charles, and I’d have Camilla on my dinner party list any time. But the moment we begin to justify the whole edifice of the monarchy on the basis of the qualities of the actual people playing the roles, we have sown the seeds of its destruction. I doubt if the man or woman exists whose personal qualities justify the veneration which we choose to bestow on our Royal Family. But what we venerate is the role and the symbol, not the individual playing the role.
If monarchy in this country depended on the qualities of the individuals occupying the throne, we would have been a republic for hundreds of years.
But now, all parties to the contract are beginning to forget the rules of this theatre. The “Royals” are beginning to twitch the curtain aside like children at a school play. “Look, here’s the real me. Here I am. Here’s what I think. Here’s what I eat. Here’s how I like to play”. You can really trace this back to the seismic shift in PR strategy that took place as long ago as 1969 when the BBC were invited to make their celebrated “fly on the wall” documentary, “Royal Family”. Here was Prince Philip frying sausages (”Look, aren’t we normal? Just like you”). There was the Queen sharing her insight with Richard Nixon that “world problems are so complex, aren’t they now?”
The fact that the documentary was so cringingly deferential probably made it all the more dangerous, because the dangers were not so evident. You could imagine the Family looking at each other after the first screening: “Well, I think we came out of that pretty well, don’t you?” What they failed to see was that they had started the process . They had shifted the focus from the roles they played to the individuals playing them them. Of course there was not an immediate collapse in public regard. In fact, on a short-term basis, quite the reverse. But the long-term rot had begun.
And then Princess Diana arrived on the scene. The personification of royalty as celebrity. And the media of course raged into a feeding frenzy of excitement. Here was everything they wanted: royalty, glamour, charisma, spawning gossip, tumbling into indiscretion, disintegrating into tragedy. And the public loved it. This was soap opera beyond anything they had ever known. And the taste for this quickly became an addiction. Now they demand that the Royal Family should be “more like Diana”. When a Royal Wedding is announced, the young couple today must do a celebrity interview, because that’s what Diana did. They must talk of “love” and “feelings” because the public now demand emoting royals . And if the supply is inadequate, they will turn to Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter to provide synthetic substitutes (But what a great film, eh?).
So, imagine you are losing yourself in the passion and tragedy of an opera. La Boheme perhaps. And now imagine that the person in the next seat to you begins to whisper in your ear: ”That soprano. Huh ! Right little tramp, that girl. And Rodolfo. He’s no better. Drunk during rehearsals”. Any chance of enjoying the performance would vanish straight away. But that’s exactly what the British press are doing. They are whispering in our ears: gossip, innuendo, rumour and speculation. And we allow it. In fact we welcome it. And in this we sow the seeds of the destruction of our system of monarchy, because no performance can indefinitely survive this kind of attention.
Yet we demand more and more, like a child devouring chocolate until it falls back, sick and nauseated. For every intimate detail we devour, for every little story about tupperware on the Queen’s breakfast table, there is a corresponding tiny chip of erosion into the regard we feel for the institution. Yet, the PR advice, probably, is ”Show you’re human. Show compassion. Let your feelings show. Let people see you’re real”. It all sounds very right. Very modern. Very market-friendly. But, actually, it’s entirely wrong, because the construct that is our monarchy can only remain robust and respected if it is impersonal, public and magnificent. The intimacy of private lives has no place in the tableau.
Is there hope? I think, sadly, that it is almost certainly too late. The trend is probably too far advanced now, too inevitable. The only possible hope would be for the Royal Family and their advisers to recognise, right now, that the PR strategy of these past 40 years has been a terrible, fundamental mistake, and to re-shape their future activities on the strict understanding that their importance as members of the Royal Family lies in the role they play. The fewer intimate details we know about them and their private lives, the greater the chance of success in the performance of their public roles. Perhaps the greatest hope lies in the record of the Queen herself. Despite the embarrassing mistake of that fly-on-the wall documentary, her entire life has been built around the meticulous performance of her public role, and the preservation of an almost impenetrable wall of discretion around her private life. She understands the contract between herself and her people. She performs her role, and her head is never one of those peeping round the stage curtain.
The public may want more. The media certainly will, and will rage at any reduction in their “royalty fix”. But ( however counter-intuitive this may sound) good PR does not always mean giving the public what they want. And sometimes, in PR, less is more. And less is what the Royal Family needs more of, if it is to survive. Less focus on individuals. Less intimate information. Less personality PR.
Terence Fane-Saunders

In drink my friend

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