PR: The industry that likes to heard but not seen

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

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico - a PR disaster if ever there was one. Photograph: Getty Images

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).