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Is it such a bad thing that London is PR capital of the world?

Posted on 12 March 2011 | 8:03am

Phil Stephens had a very measured column in the FT last week about the fact that UK PR companies always seemed to be on hand to help less democratic countries than ours with a bit of image advice. I hold no particular candle for the PR industry, but I do quite like it when the UK is viewed as the best at something, and I was moved to write a piece in response. The FT liked it, and were planning to run it in full yesterday. However, the Japan earthquake understandably changed a lot of their plans and so it is a shortened piece which appears in this morning’s paper. At the risk of offending the paywall rules, ahem, here is the fuller version. It says much the same thing but at twice the length.

Is it a bad thing that London has become the world capital for reputational management, including for leaders we would not want running our own country?

If all that PR companies do is advise undemocratic counties on how to stay undemocratic, put a positive gloss on human rights abuses, and continue to exercise control of old and new media alike, it is right to look down on the work the communications professionals do. If, on the other hand, the advice was about how to respond and adapt to the velocity of media change, then perhaps the countries concerned might see that they have to embrace that change, and that it will take them down the road to freer societies. Then, we should not rush to judgement on London’s role and reputation.

Unlike several former UK government colleagues, I have opted against setting up a strategy and communications consultancy, (though I should declare a small, part-time advisory role with Portland, run by my former deputy.) It is one of many companies operating in the public relations field, and which has helped establish London as perhaps the pre-eminent centre in this field. Only the US gets close.

There are a range of reasons. One is the English language. Another is the time zone. Anyone who has ever been involved in a global crisis management situation knows that Western European time works best as the base for a 24 hour comms strategy. Another is the British media. To have endured the full force of a UK media storm is likely to guarantee a fairly rounded set of media management skills. I recall one of Rupert Murdoch’s Australian executives once saying to me that Britain has ‘the best media in the world, and the worst media in the world – often in the same edition.’ It is a good training ground, and if governments used only to State-controlled media are being forced to open up they are going to have to learn how to adapt to very different pressures.

A few years ago, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube did not exist. They have played a fundamental role in shaping the forces of revolution which have been sweeping the Arab world. It is true that previous generations managed to get rid of Louis XVI, the Czar, the Berlin Wall and apartheid happily thinking that tweets were noises made by birds. But what social networks have done is accelerate the pace of change in a world already defined by it. They have accelerated the trend against deference. There are governments and leaders who continue to believe that they can shut down networks and keep dissent in its box. They can shut down websites, but they can’t shut them all and they can’t shut them forever, and nor can they silence all communication.

There is an underlying trend of nations today moving – whether willingly or reluctantly – from a closed to an open information culture. As they do so, they face major challenges. How they face up to them will play a large part in determining their continued survival.

In systems where TV stations and newspapers are state-controlled, there is little need for skills of media engagement. But when you lose the power to dictate the news – as thanks to social media even some of the more autocratic nations are doing – you need to learn how to convince people of your case through argument not control. This is not about sinister manipulation, but the basic duty to inform people what a government’s policies are, what leaders think and do on their behalf.

While in Britain any strengthening of government communications is generally denounced as ‘spin’, in transitional nations, journalists are usually first to welcome it. Development of pluralistic civil society, and moves towards democracy, create a need for governments to learn basic communications: both values and skills.

In my time in government, I believed in top-down, centralised communications. But the world has changed, and so has the paradigm in communications. With young populations, mobile and other platforms allied to traditional media, openness in all aspects of government is today the only answer.

In the West, not only government departments, but every significant company, charity, NGO, public service, has a communication department.  Across North Africa, the Middle East, Central Europe and large parts of Asia, this is not the case. They are being forced to change, but lack the skills or the mindset to adapt to their new world. It is no bad thing, provided the companies concerned are doing it for the right reasons and in the right way, if that help is coming from London.

Ps, I am also the subject of the Inventory column in the FT magazine where you can discover, among other things, who my mentors were, that I think State schools give better education than private schools, that I still want to be a football manager and that I am an obsessive turner-offer of switches.

  • Kevin Ryan

    The new edition of the Economist has a fairly dry, cynical take on London’s role in reputation enhancement/management. It points out that the work only begins with PR advice, and extends to throwing around money at everything from the arts, football and celebrity parties throught to think tanks and hiring journalists to chair events at conferences.

    The Economist paints it all as inherently degrading stuff, relying on the weakness of others for the despot/oligarch’s money. Much of that is the same criticism of general PR and lobbying, but it does have a sharper edge when those taking advantage are outsiders with little intention of toning down their abusive behaviour at home, preferring instead to deflect from it or build a bolthole in London.

  • Paul Marsh

    I have seen the magazine. Very nice picture. And I like the fact you could not think of a possession you wanted, apart from a football manager’s contract. I guess computer games don’t count

  • Helene Jowett

    I had not thought of it in those terms. It is also interesting to me how nobody ever seems to question us doing business – as much as we can – with China. Yet China’s record on some of these issues is up there with some of the ones we have been reading about.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Ethical problems do arise when a PR company is, for example, improving the public image of people like Muammar Gaddafi around the world. See the recent case involving Monitor Group.
    There was a rumour that the Saudis were about to buy Facebook! There are no political parties in Saudi Arabia, and women are treated as second-class citizens.
    So big money is still a threat to free speech. In Britain, a huge mistake was made when News Corp was allowed to go ahead with its bid for BSkyB. Why bother to have elections at all – let´s give all power to press barons.
    The new No 10 strategy appears to be working well. The Tory-led government is no more known only for the cuts. It is also now known for its incompetence.

  • Jacquie R

    Interesting debate. The problem with PR is that, in reality, its success depends on lack of transparency. Having worked both in the industry and for campaigning, altruistic organisations, I have to say the issue is the same. A quiet word, a lunch, a favour, a gift (and more that I am too much of a lady to mention) were tools of the trade. But then, that’s life, I guess!

  • Sue Wolstenholme

    This is such a welcome view point. The way that somebody uses a powerful tool does not bestow immorality upon the tool but only on its user. PR is such a tool and with it many have done harm and even more have done petty, pointless promotions. But when used by a skilled and knowledgeable professional, who adheres to an ethical code, it can be a force for long term change, which serves the needs of the many, rather than the few. Then it is good that we can be part of something successfully based in London – and Cornwall.

  • Richard

    “If all that PR companies do is advise undemocratic counties on how to stay undemocratic, put a positive gloss on human rights abuses, and continue to exercise control of old and new media alike, it is right to look down on the work the communications professionals do. ”

    With the sofa government you worked for, changing BBC DGs and Press Editors as you did, reducing our freedoms by the day, the above clearly defines your career under Blair!

  • Ehtch

    Unless you work in The City, or sweep the streets, yes, PR, even personal, is a way of life.

  • Ehtch

    Hope to Japan, Debbie Boone,