Robert Minton-Taylor writes:
“I have always firmly believed that PR agencies should be behind the news, but not in front of the news. It’s the clients that should be in the limelight.
“Today is a very sad day for PR.
“My former PR consultancy, a company I worked at for 14 years and represented at board director level in the UK, has been caught in the most public way of smearing a competitor.
“The story revolves around the fact that the named PR firm was hired in the US by Facebook on a project to discredit, if we are to believe the news stories, Google.
“Whatever the purpose and merits of the campaign, I firmly believe that the consultancy should have declined to take on the project.
“Casting aspersions on a competitor is not what PR is supposed to be about. The job of PR practitioners is to highlight the benefits of a client’s products and services, not to spend time unfavourably commenting on a competitor’s failings.
“I well remember working on a campaign as the de facto public relations manager for Charing Cross Hospital. We were roundly condemned in the London Evening Standard for drawing up a chart comparing the hospital with The Royal Marsden in terms of cancer research and the treatment of tens of thousands of cancer sufferers.
“The comparison – issued as an internal briefing note for senior hospital consultants but leaked to the media by a medic – was factually correct, but it put the Royal Marsden in an unfavourable light when it came to the number of cancer patients it treated. My job was to save Charing Cross from closure under the then Conservative government’s health reforms of the 1980s. (Here we go again some of you may say!).
“Secondly, not to admit who you are working for is, in my book, ethically wrong. Indeed, as academics we need to consistently remind those that we teach that you need to be open and transparent about who you represent. To hide that fact is both disingenuous and frankly dishonest.
“The upside of this scenario is that hopefully the consultancy concerned will revise its operating procedures and tell its staff – that (a) smearing a competitor is not on and (b) that you need to be honest about who is paying for your services.
“I am sad that this was brought to light in the national broadcast and print media. What should have happened is that a staffer within the agency should have been able to tell senior management that this was going on and for this practice to have been roundly condemned and stopped. Of course, we would like to think that it would not have been allowed in the first place, but PRs are great at publishing their organisation’s or client’s work but poor at communicating internally.
“Whatever the size of an account – in budget terms – there is simply no excuse for bending the rules. PR practitioners need always to remind themselves that codes of conduct, such as the CIPR Code of Conduct, are there for a reason – to protect the professionalism of the discipline.
“Without these codes we are mere propagandists.”