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PR: The industry that likes to heard but not seen

Dark Art: the Changing Face of Public Relations - review.

When corporations or banks are caught misbehaving these days, there is often gleeful talk in the media of a “PR disaster”. Such has been the case with the reporting of News Corp’s phonehacking, Barclays’s fixing of the LIBOR rate and BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This privileging of image over real-world consequences has been expedited by an industry that is proving remarkably recession-proof. That PR “operatives” today outnumber journalists in Britain is a setback for humanity’s quest for evidential truth but it is a sign of relative health for an industry that makes £3bn a year.

These rosy prospects lured the former Financial Times media editor Tim Burt over to what hacks (and, to be fair, PRs) call the “dark side”. But the business and financial PR sector in which Burt now works has had to adapt to financial meltdown and the digital revolution. It is these transformations that Burt documents in this lucid snapshot of an influential but secretive industry.

The economic slowdown means less routine spinning of corporate takeovers. And as the media and public become more antagonistic towards big business, “reputation management” is the new growth area. While the industry news in Dark Art might be a bit too insiderish for some readers, the book is revealing – perhaps unintentionally so – about how corporate “leaders” and bankers really think.

In early-20th-century America, muckraking journalists and a backlash against predatory capitalism prompted the birth of the modern PR business. The father of this new industry was Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, who in 1919 placed an advert in the New York Times. “Watch out, industry: human problems ahead,” it read. “How public relations can help solve them.” Bernays’s smoke and mirrors was designed to defend business against the social activism of the progressive era. A similar atmosphere of embattlement pervades this book, and Burt’s despatches from the world of corporate self-justification show how precarious our poor, put-upon multimillionaire chief executives feel themselves to be.

Reading his largely uncritical account of this new “age of anxiety”, in which News Corp is “mauled” by a “triumphalist” media pack “unleashed” and “sensing executive blood”, you start to understand how Tony Hayward, then chief executive of BP, could have complained after the fatal Deepwater Horizon explosion, “I’d like my life back”; or how Bob Diamond, exchief executive of Barclays, could have reckoned that the time for bankers’ “remorse and apology” was “over”. Companies such as GlaxoSmith - Kline, Olympus and McKinsey, we are told, suffer “grief” over the reporting of their misdeeds, requiring the therapeutic assistance of PR operatives as bereavement counsellors.

Campaigns against executive pay are “hostile” and “populist”; media “scepticism” is apparently “widely shared” by regulators politicians and customers; and “citizen journalism”, Burt ruefully observes, “can be a major irritant”.

It is true that a reduction in the diversity of the media ecosystem has produced a kind of bandwagon journalism and scandals can be allconsuming before the circus moves on. A recent instance of this was the G4S furore, in which the particular shortcomings of the Olympic security services provider were subjected to a level of scrutiny out of all proportion to other outsourcing cock-ups.

For all the voguish talk of banker-bashing, people power and shareholder springs, while business and finance may feel under attack from public opinion and a hostile media, those institutions wield more power than ever. And if big money continues to hire clever people such as Burt, malpractice and corruption won’t even see the light of day. The blogosphere is talked up as an arena for unprecedented scrutiny but it is no effective substitute for good old paid investigative journalism.

As conventional journalism is eroded, PR is learning how to exploit social media to great effect. RBS used Twitter to try to quash media speculation about its chief executive’s 2011 bonus. PR companies edit Wikipedia entries on behalf of their clients, “engage” with critics on social media sites and trick search engines into throwing up favourable results.

We are being treated to ever better performances of corporate probity while the reality occurs somewhere else. There is a new cottage industry coaching chief executives in how to say they’re sorry without apologising, the results of which were evident during Diamond’s “grilling” before the Commons Treasury select committee early last month. In a particularly eye-opening section of his book, Burt describes the emergence of agencies that employ exmilitary and ex-intelligence officers and which serve as reputation launderettes for dodgy regimes such as Bahrain and Kazakh stan. One such agency is Aegis, formerly run by Lieutenant Colonel Tim Spicer; another is Tony Blair Associates.

Though he provides the evidence of military industrial shadiness, Burt concludes by predicting that the practice of “dark arts” may be coming to an end. “In a world of increased scrutiny, compliance and transparency”, he writes, communications must be based on “honest dialogue”. The real situation is surely the opposite: this rhetoric of two-way communication and consumer savvy conceals the rise of massaged social media and “corporate social responsibility”. “Authenticity” is the new con.

In his devilishly frank manifesto, Propaganda, Bernays wrote: “If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it?” In contrast, today’s practitioners of PR like to trumpet their ethical concerns. This year the British and American trade bodies are attempting to beef up their code of conduct and formally define their activities. In doing so, they have hit a paradox: if you can detect
PR at work, it has failed. By claiming that PR is about transparency and candid communication, they are simply adding another layer of concealment – in effect, PR-ing PR.

Though Dark Art is often complicit in this airbrushed depiction, it does at least shine some light on an industry that likes to be “heard but not seen”.

Eliane Glaser is the author of “Get Real: How To Tell It Like It Is In a World of Illusions” (Fourth Estate, £14.99).

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis