Paul Holmes 28 Mar 2011 // 3:27PM GMT
I was interviewed for this piece in the London Standard on what has become known as “reputation laundering,” but my quotes didn’t make the final edit—which is kind of a shame, because the point I sought to convey to the author is one that isn’t really captured in the finished piece. In fact, many of the comments in the story are predicated on an outdated and I would argue inaccurate understanding of what good public relations firms do: that their work for foreign governments—including several morally-questionable regimes—involves nothing more than acting as a “mouthpiece” or “apologist” for dictators. First of all, it’s worth pointing out that PR firms can do ethical work for unethical clients, which is to say they should be evaluated on the content of their campaigns rather than on the identity of the client. If the information they disseminate is truthful and accurate—and there’s nothing in this story that points to specific instances of dishonesty and inaccuracy—then they have nothing to be ashamed of. (Conversely, if firms are disseminating dishonest and inaccurate information, even for a client with noble objectives, it goes without saying that they should be roundly condemned.) But beyond that, the reality is that good public relations counsel involves advice on how the client acts, not just on what he or she says. It’s hard to imagine a counseling firm of any repute taking on a client that was unprepared to change its bad behavior—promising to improve the reputation of such a client would be irresponsible and dishonest. In other words, any decent PR advice will improve the reality on the ground, and however incremental the improvement, that has to be a net positive. There’s nothing wrong with laundering if it actually makes things cleaner. Now, having said all that, I do think the PR industry needs to think seriously about the impact all these stories are having on its collective reputation. But—as I told the reporter from the Standard last week—I don’t think the answer is to run away from this kind of work, I think the answer is to be much more transparent about the nature of the work and the clients for whom it is being conducted. One reason that this work seems so sinister is that PR firms and clients prefer to keep so much of what they do secret. It’s time for the industry to step out of the shadows and into the sunlight.