Mark Borkowski: Turning out spin for brutal dictators is not the risk-free job it used to be

If you choose to work with some of these regimes then it affects the way your agency isviewed by other clients

Tuesday 29 March 2011 00:00
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Things are changing in the world of public relations. We are simply not where we were 30, 20, even 10 years ago. In the past, PR executives could hide away – shadowy men working in dark offices, doing their dark stuff.

Now it is a much more transparent world because of better global news coverage, social media and the ability of people to view what is really going on.

Make no mistake. The dirtier the regime and the deeper the crisis, the more money is involved. And the goliaths of the PR industry are driven to make that money.

There was a time when key PR men who were involved with difficult regimes could keep their operations pretty low-key, particularly if they made sure their names or their clients' names stayed off websites. But that is changing.

Most of the big agencies will argue that if they are involved with regimes with questionable human rights records then they can influence the process of change – that it is better to be on the inside than on the outside. But that claim wears quite thin now, precisely because we have the ability to see what is going on.

Libya is a case in point. Many of the PR fixers were quite happy to help people like Muammar Gaddafi – and that has rebounded on them, as it has with some of the other dubious regimes that have been kicked out of power.

The other argument – which was used for years in marketing tobacco – is that if "we" don't work on it then someone else will. But that argument holds little water with the public.

These are challenging and difficult times for public relations in a fast-changing world. There has to be greater transparency and if you choose to work with some of these regimes then it affects the way your agency is viewed by other clients. You will be judged by that record; many clients do not want to be associated with the grubbier regimes around the world, whichever shape or form they take. Some businesses don't want to invest in organisations that undertake that sort of work.

Of course PR companies will claim they are doing nothing wrong – they are obviously pretty good at putting out spin about their own work. But working in Belarus is a very tricky situation for any spinner to wrangle.

The problem for the PR agency Grayling is that it has now become the story.

For years PR companies could shield themselves by staying behind the headlines, but in an age of heightened scrutiny the spin men can no longer expect to operate entirely behind closed doors, with the blinds down.

Mark Borkowski is the founder and head of the Borkowski public relations firm. He was talking to Jerome Taylor

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