The ugly side of public relations and issue management has been brutally on display recently – and the result is renewed damage to the reputation of what we do.
Earlier this month, an investigative report in The Guardian exposed a high-profile British lobbying firm secretly using unbranded “news” pages on Facebook to promote sometimes dubious clients. The report detailed how CTF Partners – run by Sir Lynton Crosby, a close ally of Boris Johnson – professionalised online disinformation campaigns to burnish the image of the controversial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, and former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, accused of involvement in a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal.
The Guardian disclosed, for example, how supposedly independent Facebook news pages on the war in Yemen were actually created by CTF on behalf of the Saudi Government, and how what appeared to be an environmental organisation attacking British government subsidies to onshore windfarms was overseen by CTF, which had a contract with a major coalminer.
This damning story came just days after the New York Times revealed how a public relations company wrote an article praising the business acumen of accused sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein and paid a journalist $600 to put his name on it and post the story in Forbes magazine. In fact NYT found that Forbes, the National Post and Huffington Post were all “hoodwinked” into running stories promoting Epstein, reportedly as part of a planned campaign to rehabilitate his reputation after getting out of jail for sexual offences in 2009.
And on top of all of this was the demise of the once-respected British PR company Bell Pottinger, which spectacularly collapsed in late 2017 after its involvement in a campaign deliberately designed to stoke racial hatred in South Africa. The company was expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association for unethical and unprofessional behaviour which brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute, and it soon went into administration as clients deserted in droves.
While others remain unpunished, what’s common to such cases is the hidden use of unbranded or deceptive sources to shape controversial issues, and the systematic publication of what has come to be known as “fake news.”
Public relations professionals and issue managers sometimes legitimately work on behalf of dubious clients and questionable causes. And there are plenty of advocates who argue that even the most egregious dictator or oligarch is entitled to have their voice heard. Moreover, communicators exposed using questionable tactics – as in the recent case of CTF – will typically say that what they are doing is “within the law.”
But the question here is not whether honest practitioners should take on so-called toxic clients or toxic issues, because they always have a choice – as was shown a few years ago when a group of the biggest global PR consultancies declared they would not work with climate change deniers. And others have declined to work with Big Tobacco.
The real question is not what clients you accept, but what methods you are willing to adopt to promote those clients or causes, regardless of whether or not you act “within the law.”
When unethical practice is exposed it damages all of us and erodes trust in government and organisational communication. Sadly, recent media reports suggest that such behaviour continues to be sanctioned, and continues to undermine the ability for society to have informed and balanced discussion on important issues of the day.