'We have represented clients in the past that are controversial'

Burson-Marsteller is one of the world's most famous PR firms. UK chief, Jonathan Jordan, talks strategy with Ian Burrell

A digital image, says Jonathan "JJ" Jordan, is what you get when you type the name of a company or an individual into a search engine and then root around for half an hour among the results.

Conduct just such a search for Jordan's company and the emerging digital image, he admits, will be "mixed". This is because Jordan is the UK chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, which is one of the most powerful public relations companies in the world and, to some, the most controversial.

Its digital image, as well as reflecting the company's status as a 63-year-old institution, a trailblazer in the concept of international public relations, also records Burson-Marsteller's past work for such clients as Union Carbide (jointly responsible for the 1984 Bhopal disaster) and Babcock & Wilcox (the nuclear power plant manufacturers accused over the 1979 Three Mile Island accident), not to mention the last military dictatorship of Argentina.

On the door of the meeting room in which Jordan is sat is an inscription: "If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people." The quote is from Virginia Woolf and is one of a series of references in the building to the literary connections of the local area, London's Bloomsbury.

"Like any large public relations firm there are clients that we have represented in the past that are controversial," says Jordan, 39, a former naval officer who has run Burson-Marsteller's London operation for nearly three years. Things have been shipshape on his watch, he insists. "I cannot comment on things that occurred before my time but, in the time I have been leading this organisation, we have been very stringent and thorough in how we work to support clients facing difficult issues and the policies we adopt in supporting them."

Burson-Marsteller, which was acquired by the New York-headquartered Young & Rubicam communications group 30 years ago, has been part of Sir Martin Sorrell's vast WPP media empire since 2000. Its founder, Harold Burson, who at 88 still plays an active role in the company, recognised the value of a transatlantic operation as long ago as 1961 when, on the founding of the Common Market, he set up offices in Geneva and then Brussels.

The London office was founded in 1967. "It gives Burson the heritage of being in London a long time and being part of the establishment," notes Jordan. He points out that Burson alumni, such as Angus Maitland of the Maitland Consultancy and Andrew Grant of Tulchan Group, have become senior figures in the British public relations sector. Others are on the boards of rival multinational operations. "It's the intellectual rigour this place has, a commitment to training and professional development, and seeing PR as a professional service, not a commodity," Jordan explains, stressing that Burson-Marsteller is a "consultancy" rather than an "agency" that merely acts as an intermediary between its clients and the media.

He is pleased, for example, with the company's work for Bacardi, a campaign that underlines the client's support for responsible drinking and uses Michael Schumacher as an ambassador. Burson-Marsteller's London operation now oversees five of the company's top 20 accounts, including Royal Dutch Shell, De Beers, Sony Ericsson and the Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace, a project heavily backed by Microsoft to address misuse of online data.

Big oil companies, diamond miners and global internet giants are not without critics and Jordan acknowledges the growth of ethical consumerism. "It's not a blip, a few trendy left-leaning individuals that care about the provenance of their goods," he says. "Mainstream society wants to know that the companies they are dealing with have high standards that are enforced and adhered to throughout the supply chain."

Burson-Marsteller is known for its work in crisis management, which partly explains why it has repeatedly found itself mired in controversy.

Jordan claims he is willing to reach out to pressure groups that challenge his clients. "I think your job as a professional is to look at how you can move things forward, find common ground and address the wrongs that a company has undertaken," he says. "Stalemate is not a solution for anybody and NGOs are often the first to admit this."

The modern Burson-Marsteller, says Jordan, wants staff that can "empathise" with the points of view of all "stakeholders", even when they are fierce critics. "I want people who have the ability to understand the full spectrum of opinion on any particular issue," he says. "Understanding the motivation of an NGO to take sometimes extreme action ... you might not agree with it or think it's the right thing to do but you've got to have empathy."

This is unlikely to convince hardened campaigners, but Jordan argues that the PR smoke screens of the past are no longer viable in a media age where the truth may out from an employee's blog or a comment on a Twitter feed, "relaying what was heard after drinks at the bar". He tells clients in crisis that their "elasticity of recovery" will benefit from an honest approach. "If a company shows transparency their reputation recovers quite quickly".

Crucially, modern PRs must be able to react instantly to storms that blow up online. "The ramifications are pretty extreme now. There have been cases of 10% or 20% of share price being lost through the failure to manage the concerns of an individual stakeholder because the digital world provides a platform to build momentum around a particular issue."

It is a communications age in which "you can find yourself with so many fires going off that however much manpower you deploy you can't put them all out", says Jordan, stressing the importance of setting up in advance strategies for combating such scenarios ("we call it putting money in the bank"). This approach includes strong internal communications, he believes. His own company has its own internal strategy, including a list of qualities desirable for being a "Burson person", the top of which is having "a 'can do' attitude".

Jordan had an unusual apprenticeship in PR, attending the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, and serving as a sub-lieutenant on HMS Amazon and HMS Achilles, before leaving the navy after four years to try his hand at journalism, using his knowledge of electronics to write for such titles as HiFi World and What HiFi? He then took a degree in electronic engineering and business management.

His background means he has an exceptional grasp of digital media ("I actually know what Mpeg level 3 compression technology is") but also values the people skills he learned during his time in the navy. "The one thing the military teaches you is the way to work with everybody and build a bridge to everyone," he says. "That's been a very useful tool in my career thereafter."

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