Can you engage in PR and still be authentic?

Authenticity is widely regarded as a measure of quality when it comes to your communications, and yet for many, the practice of public relations is inherently at odds with the notion of authenticity. We take a look at this tension and argue that far from being inauthentic, PR is, in the words of a well-known agency strapline, the ‘truth well told’.

How PR got itself a bad name

In the 1990s, the emergence of ‘the spin doctor’ helped set the bar fairly low in terms of trust in the message and the messenger. Sure, there were propagandists throughout history but there is an argument that during the years of the last Labour government, Tony Blair’s spin-doctor-in-chief, Alistair Campbell, made the dark art his own, and in the process went a long way to undermine trust in the PR profession and confidence in politicians, with his ‘style over substance’ approach to communication.

The era of spin was a time low on fact and truth, but now there has to be much more substance to our communication and much more honesty, because frankly, we’re all pretty much jaded by years of deceit. So, the truth will out!  And whilst that doesn’t mean we have to air all our tawdry tales in the public domain, we do have an obligation to be transparent, particularly if our clients and their brand claims are to stand up to anything greater than the most superficial scrutiny.

From spin to scandal

In recent years, one of the most notable examples of how not to do it came in the form of the infamous ‘Sweatygate’ scandal, which saw an agency using a member of its own team to create a false ‘real-life’ case study. The pitch to media involved an individual, ‘Esme de Silva’, whom, it was claimed, suffered from an unfortunate condition that led her to sweat excessively. It was suggested in the story that her embarrassing condition had been treated successfully by use of an antiperspirant product produced by the agency’s client.

That sounds like the perfect stuff of which case studies are made, except none of it was true! ‘Esme’ (not her real name) was uncovered as the PR agency’s senior account executive. And as a consequence of the agency’s attempts to mislead, its founder and principal was, rightly, on the receiving end of a torrent of negative publicity, and was stripped of her Chartered Institute of Public Relations membership by the profession’s governing body. The bigger loser though was a client, whose product may well have had miraculous properties but who would find it difficult subsequently to convince the media and public of the product’s efficacy or its own integrity as a brand. 

‘Sweatygate’ was by no means the only case of fake identities being used in so-called genuine case studies but thankfully, with organisations like the CIPR taking a tough line to sanction offenders then we may be entering an era within which deceit is not the default option of the unscrupulous in their quest to gain column inches or social media likes for clients.

How far do you take the truth?

Truth, integrity, transparency…they’re all required if one wishes to be authentic but brutal honesty, when it isn’t required, can have the opposite effect to that which is desired. Just ask Gerald Ratner, the one-time boss of Ratner’s jewellers, one of the High Street’s major success stories in the 1980s.  

Fast forward a few years to 1991, and company chief, Gerald Ratner, delivered a speech that would define his career, at an Institute of Directors event in London. In his speech, Ratner said something like: “People ask me how we can sell a pair of earrings for the same price as a Marks and Spencer prawn sandwich, and I say easy, because they’re total crap, and the sandwich will last longer!” The ensuing media coverage spooked investors, helped wipe around £500 million from the share value in the space of a week, and turned away loyal customers in their thousands.  The brand name became toxic and never recovered.

Now, it may well have been the case that the products were cheap and flimsy but then, Ratner’s didn’t sell on a platform of quality. Although perhaps unspoken, their customers knew they weren’t buying quality but they didn’t really want their noses rubbing in it by the guy to whom they gave their hard-earned cash! 

Ratner had truth in all its unadulterated glory, even if he was misguided to use it.  And nobody would suggest the method of delivery wasn’t original, yet it was still an own goal! So it proves that the style of particular PR communications can reflect originality, and a kind of authenticity, but if the content doesn’t reflect a level of sensibility and integrity sufficient to engender trust in the message and the brand, then it’s unlikely to be considered truly authentic.

True authenticity  

It’s time for change, and those believing in communications reliant upon smoke and mirrors should, by now, have gone the way of Tyrannosaurus-Rex. Being authentic is about being true to a set of principles and it’s also about being true to the client. If you only ever present truth and transparency, then the reputation of client brands, agencies and the PR sector are the beneficiaries. 

PRs shouldn’t sweat the good stuff. The ingredients of a good story are inherent; the role of the PR is to find the angle that makes it real, relevant and engaging. Put simply, it’s raw storytelling. 

Creating and developing narrative based on facts is our craft, so getting communication right should come easily to any agency, particularly if said business respects the basic principle of fact over fiction every time.  

For more on how to achieve authenticity without breaking a sweat... or doing a Ratner, take a look at our ‘How-to’ guide, which offers some sage advice and reveals all you need to know on the subject.