Quis Reputare Managiet ipsos Reputare Manages?
Forgive the awful adaptation of Latin taken from the darkest recesses of secondary school, but the above reigns quite true. The phrase coined by Juvenal in his Satires “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”, or “who will guard the guards?” has a certain poignancy when it comes to PR. Let’s be honest, we’re not a hugely popular profession.
Whenever I have a chat with people I’ve just met, or family friends, or family for that matter, I get the question “So what do you do?”
Cue profuse sweating, shaky voice, and a quick racking of the cerebrum to explain what PR actually is. My standard tongue in cheek response is ‘making companies look good’, which I think sums it up quite well. However, most people hear public relations and probably think something along the lines of “So you exaggerate the truth?” or “Ah! A spin-doctor” Neither of which are true; I do not exaggerate, and I am nowhere near talented enough to be considered a spin-doctor of any sort.
But it does beg the question of how can PR raise its own reputation?
Come with me on a journey into the past where we explore at (a high level) one of the defining moments where reputation management was plunged into the abyss of distrust. It all starts in Scotland…
…with farmed salmon. A study was published that said Scottish farmed salmon had high levels of a certain chemical which was linked to developing cancer. Naturally the industry body representing these farmers didn’t want this to affect the status quo, so it briefed Chrome Consulting, a reputation management consultancy and said “fix this”.
What happened next? Discrediting every source that said the above, a long battle to get the name of Scottish Farmed Salmon cleared, along with other practices that the industry would (perhaps) balk at were it to happen tomorrow. All of this can be read in an outstanding yet highly critical academic article written by David Miller on the subject. It’s a good’un. What’s the real kicker though? Chrome won an award for the campaign.
This does however lead us to the question of how to shed that label of ‘spin’? If we’re optimistic the term might fade into obscurity by 2123, but if we’re realistic it probably won’t. Whether we like it or not, we have all been tarred with the same brush; it’s proving awfully sticky and there are more than a few feathers along with it. So how do we go about washing the tar off? How do we become less Malcolm Tucker (Very NSFW), and more…Toby Ziegler?
It’s a tricky question, and one that doesn’t have any one right answer. Accountability is one aspect we should be incorporating into our practice, subscribing and adhering to industry body rules and codes of ethics is another (the PRCA and CIPR are prime examples of this). Finally and perhaps most importantly should be: transparency. Think MP expenses (ha) or the Government Accountability Office in the US. If someone has the chance to find something out, people are less likely to carry out unsightly activities.
But perhaps it’s a bit simpler than that. Maybe if we just had a bit of moral standing and ethical backbone in regards to our practice, we might become a bit more respected. After all, no one wants to become the next textbook example of what not to do, do they?