Exploring the Darkness of Public Relations

A large boardroom table with no more than four people sitting around it, all pondering over the right answer to a straight forward question: “How can we destroy them?”

A Government Minister’s private chamber, with his/her closest aides in attendance, trying to appease their “master” by providing sound, “ethical” advice:

We can get someone to uncover all the dirt he’s hiding and, this way, he’ll no longer bother you – he’ll be too busy saving his own reputation and political capital accrued insofar”.

A foreign country, where bribery and corruption of local politicians and law enforcement agents are common place – “if we pay them what they ask, they’ll go away and bother someone else. Yes, but what if they come back and want some more? Then we’ll pay them again – it’s worth it”.

The dark side of Public Relations is generally associated with the corporate world and reputation management, argues Sujay Mehdudia.

I somehow disagree with Sujay – “dark” or “black hat PR” is primarily associated with political communication, lobbying, international affairs and diplomacy. But, as Sujay argued above, the corporate world does have its fair share of ruthlessness in terms of “special PR ops”, especially corporate espionage.

“Black PR is very easy to identify when it is binary. If a spokesperson of a sovereign state says something verifiably incorrect – “there are no soldiers in this town” – whilst satellite imagery shows armoured fighting vehicles in the town, then both he/she and that sovereign state have damaged their reputation.

“However, what if the context changes? What if it can be argued that forces are engaged in a conflict of self-defence? What if there is seriously objective evidence to demonstrate this?

“Black PR is at its most effective not at the tactical, binary “did they or did they not do x”, but when it creates the perception that maybe they were justified in “doing x”” – Paddy Blewer

Manipulation, extortion, entrapment, propaganda, psychological operations, nudging, intelligence / counter-intelligence and emotional blackmail are all specialisms of Public Relations viewed as a wider function of conveying a message to a public, ensuring the public has received it, understood it and acted on it as desired by the sender – after all, it all started with the basic communication model of Shannon and Weaver, didn’t it?

However, the fundamental difference between “dark PR” and PR as many of us practice it, is that little huge line called “ethics”. This is a line which, regardless of how many Codes of Conduct we subscribe to, is directly attached to our fundamental values, beliefs and behaviours.

If you were made to choose between doing the right thing (which could be tenuous, time consuming and resource intensive) and the wrong thing (fast, quick win and surgical intervention-type), and your answer would be “the easiest”, then dark PR is likely for you – it’s fast, dirty and spectacularly easy.

Bell Pottinger and Cambridge Analytica are two birds of a feather and perfect examples of what dark PR is all about – the former advanced the cause of totalitarian leaders in places where public accountability and scrutiny were not the norm, and the latter tampered with the free will of many and propagated entrapment in a variety of forms. After all, in the 21st century everything is up for grabs and honesty, positive news, ethics and moral values are declining, aren’t they?

The rules of market forces teach us all that where there is a gap on a market, many will seek to fill it.

For instance, Asia is a place rife with media and public manipulation, lies and defamatory accusations:

“Online attacks in China can be openly hostile and direct, covert and insidious, and take many forms: from negative, misleading and outright false media articles and cooked-up research studies to underhand online smear campaigns, rumours, innuendo and blackmail.

“Whilst their nature may differ, what they have in common is that they have a nasty tendency to go viral at extraordinary speed. They are more often designed explicitly to damage a company or an individual’s reputation.

“Foreign companies are also sitting ducks given their visibility, relatively deep pockets and their reputation for playing fair in a market in which they cannot afford to be discovered bending the rules or operating in the shadows,” Charlie Pownall argued in an interview with Forbes.

India, another mammoth in terms of PR and Marketing spend, is no different than China:

“Dark PR has become a bit more prevalent in a country like India. Industries like oil and gas, power, tobacco or mining, all use tactics which are unethical, unprincipled and unprofessional in PR terms, to convey their message and seek to turn the opinion of the masses as well as the power corridors in their favour, to gain credibility for their respective industries, clients or individuals.

“The idea is to create an impression of ground support at the grassroots for a controversial issue by putting vulnerable NGOs, institutions or individuals in the front to fund the campaign and control the narrative from the backstage. To sum it up, it is basically all fake.

“As majority of the Indian media, especially those working in the vernacular media are poorly paid, they are the soft targets for dark PR professionals or firms. They can be influenced to write or damage companies, reputations and individuals without checking the facts.

“A case in point of poor PR and, at the same time, dark PR is what happened to Nestle in India in case of Maggi Noodle scandal that tore apart the company and showed the dark side of PR and media two years ago. No one was found guilty in that scam, but the damage had been done, and Nestle that year posted huge losses.

“There is no doubt dark PR is very dangerous and could pose serious challenge to the survival of the companies or people with standing.” – Sujay Mehdudia

It’s becoming harder – if not harder than ever before – to cut through the noise and chatter and have an informed opinion these days. But, for Joe Blog, the truth can easily be a blatant lie, or something framed to appear absolute truth:

I clearly remember last year’s Bell Pottinger scandal, and the events leading up to its expulsion from PRCA. I also know that both Francis Ingham, as well as several CIPR executives, received death threats from South African members of the public, strongly believing that both organisations had something to hide or were blind to the public uproar against Bell Pottinger.

I must admit, I received my own fair share of abuse online then because of this – some of those “accusers” have become now close “Twitter” friends; I’m not going to name them, because they know who they are. What many of these disgruntled members of the public didn’t know (or didn’t care to), is that neither PRCA nor CIPR condone/approve/endorse/regulate unethical PR practices: and dark PR is unethical.

It is hard to explain to members of the public that Public Relations includes a variety of specialisms – external communication, media relations, stakeholder engagement, lobbying, political affairs, international relations, internal communication, employee engagement, reputation management, issues management etc. – including a specialised sub-set of “darkness”.

This “dark PR” is here to stay for many years.

We cannot exclude it from the list above, nor can we pretend it doesn’t exist – it does and it’s thriving, especially in authoritarian/totalitarian countries and developing economies.

“The UK PR industry was very smug regarding Bell Pottinger – which also got what it deserved. However, in the past few years alone, well known, ethical firms have taken on work which indirectly supports tyranny. It’s not just the evil that annoys me, it’s the hypocrisy.” – Paddy Blewer

For those of you who work in-house, especially, understanding the enormous impact dark PR can have on your employer’s public good standing and operations is paramount. You need to carry out one of the most robust audits you’ve ever done in your career – but this is not the audit of “let’s see how we engage with our workforce” or “can we have a prettier newsletter”.

This is an audit like you’ve never done before: anticipate anything and everything that can be thrown at you as an organisation and, in particular, at your leadership. To be able to do that, you need to know your employer and its leader(s) better than they know themselves.

According to Chris Lee, founder of content consultancy Eight Moon Media:

“Researchers have found false stories travel faster online than true stories, due to their novel nature, presenting a challenge to PR. Compounding the issue is that the media has been sucked into a war to be first to publish, rather than take the time to fact check.

“The onus is on PRs now then to up their game, use only facts, avoid speculation and continue to build long-term relationships with journalists and influencers.”

The last time I was asked to agree with the use of dark PR was three years ago, when I handled a massive crisis for a multi-national organisation. It would have been very easy to agree to using dark PR, and I could have turned a blind eye to it being done. But that’s not what building a positive corporate reputation is about. It’s not what a corporation in crisis needs to do to recover and rehabilitate its name. It’s not how my client would have regained trust with its publics and service users. It’s not what will have positioned their organisation as a leader in their field.

Doing it right, doing the right thing, and painstakingly rebutting one Facebook and Twitter comment at a time is – dark PR, my friends, can win a quick and dirty battle.

It will never win the public war.


Photo by Riccardo Chiarini on Unsplash.

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Founding Chartered PR Practitioner, CIPR Board member (2018), former UK Government Communication Services and Institute of Directors mentor, published author and university lecturer, Ella has almost 20 years of high level government and international organisations experience in corporate reputation, leadership and crisis management, across business disciplines and governments, including investment markets, lender organisations, national and international media, NGOs and affected communities. She is a 2014 Service Award Winner of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, Assessor of CIPR's Chartered Scheme, an elected member of the CIPR Council (2017-2018), Founder of CIPR’s Energy Leadership Platform, former Chair of CIPR’s Foresight Panel and a Fellow of the Institute of Leadership and Management. She handled some of the most prominent international crisis of recent times, she developed the Leadership Development Programme for SPE’s MENA young engineers and she has also been an adviser to several governments on their national branding strategies. Her list of clients includes McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, Total, BP, Shell, Centrica, KazTransOil, Averda, The World Bank, Private Investment Development Group, the European Commission, the European Bank For Reconstruction and Development and many others. She is also Robert Gordon University's Lead Trainer for the Crisis Communication Diploma (CIPR Specialist Diploma).

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