Risky times for PR
Dark Art: The Changing Face of Public Relations
by Tim Burt
212 pages, Elliott & Thompson, 2012
Every few years, an experienced insider sets out to expose the dark side of public relations. Following David Michie’s The Invisible Persuaders from 1998 and George Pitcher’s The Death of Spin from 2002, we now have Tim Burt’s Dark Art.
Burt is an articulate guide. A former Financial Times journalist and partner at Brunswick, his focus is on financial public relations during the economic crisis of 2008-2012. Unlike Michie, Burt does not expose PR wrongdoing; instead, he outlines the problems facing the practice.
A media-focused communication practice is threatened by rapid change in the media landscape. Meanwhile, social media is making communication less manageable and predictable for corporations. A series of high profile reputation crises have shown that even revered businesses are in imminent danger despite the best efforts of their advisers.
“The events at Toyota, BP, News Corp, McKinsey and others have tended to make senior business leaders risk averse, and less willing to communicate. But in a digital era, a say-nothing approach poses a major risk. Other communicators will fill the vacuum.”
Public relations consultancy fees have been growing, so all may seem to be well in the world of corporate reputation management. But Burt argues against this glib assumption.
In-house teams are becoming more professional and assuming more of the routine work as well as more corporate communication management. Yet the economic downturn has limited the fees available for project-based mergers and acquisition (M&A) work for financial PR firms. They are coming under pressure as advisers on risk, issues and crisis management from a new breed of consultancy drawing on skills and techniques gained from the work of the national intelligence agencies. This covert work is distinct from the more openly communicative work of conventional PR consultancies.
“For PR executives who have grown up regarding themselves as intermediaries between business and the media, it is a difficult leap to become risk management specialists in areas such as commodity prices, foreign exchange, IT cybercrime, regulation and consumer demand… In a business era where crisis prevention should be preferable to cure, PR advisers have still not secured automatic membership of the preparation team.”
This distinction between risk management and public relations is also mirrored in the difference between public relations and lobbying. ‘Public relations is focused mainly on the downstream business of securing favourable coverage and positive external perceptions of an agency’s clients. Political and business lobbying is focused on the upstream, behind-the-scenes, engagement with politicians, regulators and international organisations to educate such opinion formers about a client’s interests.’
Burt argues that these practices within the strategic communications industry are converging: ‘In spite of disagreements between different practitioners, the activities of lobbyists, financial PR firms, intelligence agencies, product marketing and management consultancy are coalescing under the broad umbrella of reputation.’
The message is clear: public relations consultants need to become more professional to work alongside and compete with these other functions. Yet ‘the senior ranks of the PR industry are populated by corporate nomads, a tribe drawn from marketing, financial services, politics, the law, diplomacy, the media and occasionally pure PR men [sic] who have known no other trade’.
The gender-specific language may jar, but Burt is writing about corporate and financial PR consultancies and the names he lists (such as Tim Bell, Alan Parker, Roland Rudd) are overwhelmingly male.
His insider’s view is valuable and the case studies are recent, if sometimes repetitive. His message is clear:
“Agencies now have an opportunity to exploit the business world’s increased appetite for reputation risk management. They may succeed in this emerging business area only if they establish a credible niche, connecting their media expertise and communication skills to proven risk analysis.”