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


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

The Election “a gripping spectacle”

This British election looks like providing a gripping spectacle for anyone in our business. We’re still in the “phoney war” stages, with no election date declared, but the politicians are already in hand-to-hand combat.
There’s no doubt that in these early stages, Labour have comprehensively out-manoevred and out-gunned the Tories, and I have a feeling Peter Mandelson may deserve the credit for that. The Tory communications strategy has certainly looked naive at times, leaden-footed and quite simply, not very bright in comparison.
But, let’s be clear here. I’m not talking about who’s right and who’s wrong. I’m not talking about the honesty or competence of the front bench teams. I’m talking about the ruthless, cynical world of election campaigns. And in that world, good guys don’t always finish first.
One of the most obvious areas of improvement for Labour has been in Prime Minister’s Questions. For month after month, David Cameron had danced around Gordon Brown like a matador addressing a tired and bad tempered old bull. But then, suddenly, it all changed. The strategy was quite simple, really. The Prime Minister stopped answering questions . Instead , he responded to almost every question from the Opposition leader with a crisp and effective sneer at the Tory Party. No matter that it had been cooked up earlier. No matter if it had little or nothing to do with the question. It made an excellent soundbite, and moved the debate from Government failures to Tory inadequacies. His backbenchers loved it. Radio loved it. The headline writers loved it. Suddenly the old slugger was punching again.
Of course the Tories have been unlucky with the timing of the election, as recession gloom has slowly shifted to hesitant hope. But here again, the Labour Party have played the more cunning hand. “There will be pain”, they have told us, jaws jutting and teeth clenching in an honest, manly way. “But don’t worry. It won’t be just yet”. The Tories, meanwhile, have offered pain and suffering the moment they come to power. So, which do the public prefer? It doesn’t take a genius to anticipate that one. The Ipos-Mori poll shows that 57% of people say that cuts now will damage the recovery. Only 30% are wanting immediate action. And given the precarious state of our economy, it really is hard to see the Tories winning public support when their economic strategy is so at odds with the public mood.
The Ashcroft nonsense has also been a triumph for the Labour spinners. Of course the Tories should have seen this coming a long way back, and lanced this particular boil before it was left to poison their election campaign. But the real triumph has been in the Labour spin. We’re not actually talking of an illegal act here. Nor even real corruption. In fact, his offshore status is not so different from Labour’s Lord Paul. And shiftiness over his tax status should surely pale into insignificance compared with the current ghastly Lobbygate squalor. But Labour have been very smart, making reference after reference to Lord Ashcroft while very seldom spelling out the specific offence alleged. Gradually, the power of repetition has started to bite. Nuance, hint and implication have been more than enough. If you stopped the average British voter in the street, and asked him or her what Lord Ashcroft had actually done wrong, the great majority would have no real idea . But they would be clear in their minds that it was probably corrupt, possibly illegal and stinks to high heaven. That’s truly an astonishingly brilliant piece of “black” spin. Through repetition and innuendo, Labour have turned the Ashcroft name into a potent protective mantra, to be chanted with proper fervour any time Labour sleaze is raised. And boy does it work.
The budget made great theatre, too. Darling’s plodding, steady delivery was probably perfect for a Government whose election message, clearly is “always keep a-hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse”. And nurse doesn’t scare you with talk of nasty things. For television viewers, though, the sight of the Prime Minister just behind the Chancellor’s shoulder, scowling, grimacing and leering in such a startling fashion might have been quite a distraction. The PM’s facial expressions might be the next fearsome mountain for the good Lord Mandelson to conquer.
Cameron was all fire, energy and aggression, with a good stock of one-liners, more than one of which appeared to be truly spontaneous. Clearly he wanted to send the message of Tory energy versus Labour exhaustion. But it did seem a little unremitting. The tone never shifting. By the end of his onslaught, the viewer/ listener probably felt as exhausted as the PM looked. I’d vote it a score draw. Say, three all. Or , just possibly the Tories shaded it in extra time, with help from the Lib Dems.
So where from here? The Tory lead is in steep decline. One poll has it as low as 2% which puts us into Labour victory territory. And if you extrapolate the recent trend, you’d actually be inclined to put your money on Labour.
But all is not lost for the Tories. We’re still not into serious campaign mode, and once that starts, the media really come into play. And here the Tories have a serious advantage. Look at the players on each team. The Telegraph for the Tories has a circulation of almost 700 thousand. Labour can expect support from the Guardian and the Independent, but together their circulations don’t break the half million mark. But it looks like the Times (just over half a million) will be backing the Cameron camp, too. So, among the “heavies” the Tories will have a marked advantage, even if the BBC tends slightly to favour any Government in power. But when you look at the mass market media, the imbalance is even more marked. For the middle market, the Tories have the Mail (well over two million) and the Express (almost 800,000). Labour have nothing. Gordon Brown can certainly look to the Mirror (just over 1.2 million) and the Star (800,000 plus) for support. But on the other side, there’s the might of the Sun (almost 3 million circulation) comfortably outstripping the Mirror and Star put together.
As the campaign gathers pace, the these papers (and their Sunday stablemates) are going to move into campaigning mode, and this really will be a huge advantage for the Tories. But don’t under-rate the Labour spinners. If they continue to outperform the Tories over the coming weeks, they’ll negate a lot of that media advantage. We could be in for a photo finish.
Terence Fane-Saunders

Rotten fish

I heard somebody on the radio yesterday trying to talk down the impact of negative media coverage. So, of course, the old chestnut was hauled out: “Today’s newspaper headlines are tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers”.
Yes, of course, that used to be the case. Time buried most scandals. And the strategy for crisis and issues management took good account of that. “This time next year”, we’d say to a troubled client, “will anyone really remember this?”.
But no longer. The arrival of the Internet age means that the media storm that breaks about your ears will be still rumbling on for years into the future. Any time that anyone researches you or your business, there it all will be, stinking like rotten fish, but never disappearing down the waste disposal chute.
This makes it much more important than ever that negative media coverage is challenged, countered and corrected at once, as soon as it appears. Yes, there are things you can do about old, inaccurate and damaging stories if they keep popping up on the web. But this can be difficult, messy and not 100 % effective. The time to fight back is when you are under attack. Keeping your head down and hoping for the “fish and chip wrapper” effect just won’t work any longer. Here’s the new rule to remember: “What the media hook today will be rotten fish tomorrow”.
Terence Fane-Saunders

What Worked Yesterday

So it begins. Chelgate has joined the blogosphere.
I’m writing this on board Eurostar, after a quick visit to our Brussels office, where the mood seems more upbeat and assertive than I can remember for some time. Now that the Irish have fallen into line over the Lisbon Treaty, and indications are that the Czechs will do the same, it really seems that ratification will be more or less inevitable. And that, of course, poses a sticky problem for the Tories. What becomes of David Cameron’s “cast iron guarantee” of a referendum?
I’d guess that the Tories will have to back-pedal on the pledge. Holding a referendum once the treaty is ratified would make very little sense. The horse will have bolted, the stable door will hang ajar.
Of course, in a real world of common sense and honest dealing, it should be possible for the Tories to adapt their position to the changed reality. If you promise a patient a life – saving operation, but they die before reaching the operating table, you’re hardly going to plough ahead with the surgery.
And this patient’s certainly dead. The debate is over. If the treaty is ratified, then the referendum would be little more than a pointless post mortem. The guarantee simply wouldn’t apply any more, in that real world of common sense and honest dealing.
But, of course, this is not the world of British politics . Chances are that if the Tories do attempt to re-cast their cast iron guarantee, angry fingers will be pointed across the floor of the House, cries of “turncoat” will fill the air (and perhaps not just from the Labour benches). If Gordon Brown is quick on his feet, he should be able to land a few painful blows below the Cameron beltline. Weak, naive, fickle and inconstant. It’s easy to imagine the epidemic of epithets.
But while none of this would be really justified, and of course responsible Opposition adjusts its policies in light of events, the Tories also have themselves to blame. A basic rule of issues management is that you never make promises you mightn’t be able to keep. Good intentions alone are not enough. The public, usually, doesn’t give a fig for your intentions. It’s what you do that counts. In this case, David Cameron not only made the promise, but he gilded it and preserved it in the golden language of the soundbite. “A cast iron guarantee”. A phrase like that was never going to slip gently into obscurity.
But the Tory team are pretty astute. I wouldn’t expect them to wait for the Czech ratification before they redefine their position. Nor would I expect them simply to announce a change of policy. They should probably devote the next few weeks to a vigorous assault on Labour, pointing out that ratification will kill the last chance for the British people to have their say; that it will deny the British people the chance of the referendum which every major party has promised them; that if the chance of a referendum dies, it is the Labour party that has killed it. Before they actually announce a change of position, they should be re-defining the landscape of the debate. They need to build common acceptance that ratification changes everything, that if the hoped of a referendum is to be denied to the British people, it is because Labour has killed it, not because the Tories have abandoned it.
If they do prepare the ground this way, then they should be able to float a new policy for post-ratification, without appearing to be performing a contorted u-turn. But if they leave it too late, or fail to shape the debate over the next few weeks, I would expect Labour to have a happy field day with David Cameron’s “cast iron guarantee”.
It’s our 21st
It is actually 21 years this month since Chelgate opened for business. During that time, we have seen a revolution in our profession. The techniques, the resources, the very definition of our role have all changed beyond measure. Above all, the Internet has re-written the rules of good public relations and public affairs practice . I’ll be returning to these changes in later blogs. But perhaps what’s most important is not to look back, but to look ahead. The pace of change is accelerating, and new forces are reshaping the way that people interact with the world around them – with government, with business and with each other. Even months ago it would have been hard to forecast the impact of Twitter on public life. In just the last few days we have seen how the new phenomenon of the “Twitterstorm” had the power to tear the blindfold and gag off Trafigura’s watertight legal injunction on the Guardian. This must be stirring wild surmise in the hearts of lawyers and media relations professionals the world over. What barriers are safe? What can’t be done? At Chelgate, our task must be to ensure not just that we understand how to protect and promote our clients’ interests in this altered world. We must understand the changing possibilities for our business, looking ahead constantly, and never, for one instant, thinking that what worked yesterday will probably work just as well tomorrow.
The months and years ahead should be an exhilarating journey for our profession. Enjoy the ride with us. Stay in touch with the blog.
Terence Fane-Saunders
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