His Master's Voice

Article excerpt

Thanks to Twitter and other social networks, a company's reputation can be trashed in minutes. So bosses want savvy media advisers on hand, helping them to keep the image positive and the public sweet - and to dodge disasters. Jeremy Hazlehurst reports on the growing influence of PR masterminds.

One afternoon last November, at the height of the Lord McAlpine drama, Tim Bell was sitting alone in his small office on the fifth floor of a modern building in Mayfair, central London. As the 71 year-old puffed on cigarettes, he took calls from journalists and lawyers on behalf of his old friend, wondering who to sue and who to leave alone. It's not a glamorous office. There's a computer, a TV tuned to BBC news, a bookshelf and an ashtray with a pack of B&H beside it. Not the office you'd expect to be housing an individual who was once the most powerful PR man in the country, the man who masterminded Margaret Thatcher's press campaigns during her three successful general elections. Or, more recently, who has advised the governments of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Belarus.

Although the McAlpine story played out on Twitter, there was something deliciously old-fashioned about the scene: the well-connected PR man righting wrongs, making mischief and settling scores. Bell is old school par excellence. The world of social networking was decades away when he was in his pomp, but his skills are evidently still much in demand 'It's a very transparent world,' he says. 'I liken transparency to opening Pandora's box. There is no guarantee that what comes out is good and fun to read. Much of it is horrible and vile and not true.'

Tapping his cigarette on the ashtray, he adds: 'Twitter is a sewer. The internet is a sewer. If you want to live in a transparent world then someone has to give the information about you. If you don't want someone else to, you have to do it yourself. That's what PR people do.'

It comes as no surprise to him that PR is booming. The industry became a dollars 10bn business in 2011, and now employs 66,000 people worldwide, according to the Homes Report, which ranks PR firms. The industry grew by 8% in 2011, and the same the year before. A US study has estimated that in 1980 there were 1.2 PRs for every journalist. By 2010 the ratio was 4:1.

PR people are starting to make it to the top of businesses. John Fallon, ex-corporate affairs chief at publisher Pearson, will become its CEO next year. At pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline, Duncan Learmouth, ex-head of global communications, took charge of a new emerging markets division in 2010. The director of the Institute of Directors is Simon Walker, formerly of City spinners Brunswick. And our prime minister was once head of comms for Carlton Television.

In the 1970s and 1980s, it was advertising and marketing types who had the ear of the boss. In in the 1990s, it was the strategists' turn, while in the noughties it was HR people leading the war for talent who were in favour. Now the comms chief is the individual that the CEO and chairman require to be right behind them. They are the eyes and ears of the organisation in uneasy and austere times, the consigliere, the trusted adviser.

Many people find this deeply disturbing. PR is seen as a dark, arcane art and PR professionals purveyors of fluff at best, deception at worst Flacks, goes the cliche, spend their days chatting up hacks and burying bad news. Bell says that's not the case. 'Although people constantly accuse us of being the most evil, corrupt sons of the devil, we aren't,' he says. 'We are actually the most truthful people in the world, because we know that the truth works.'

Be that as it may, there's another reason to feel relaxed about the rise of PR: the profession has changed beyond recognition in the past decade. Although media relations activities have burgeoned, involving the paper press, online publications, television and bloggers, it is only a small part of the job now. …