Reputation, Rumour and Reaction Management: The Dark Arts of PR

We all know about Piggate.

We’ve all read the story, listened to the reaction and heard the jokes, so there’s little point in me going into the details. Let’s get that out of the way from the outset.

But puerile wise-cracking and meme-designing aside, the story, alongside several other high profile September headlines, has shone a light onto some of the darker arts of public relations and has played out in a complex and fascinating way.

To say that Lord Ashcroft’s accusations towards the incumbent Prime Minister were surprising would be an understatement for the ages. But moving from the initial sniggerful puns and farmyard innuendos, the last two weeks have shown that one of the oldest and most destructive weapons in the PR arsenal is as potent as ever: the power of rumour.

In the space of two days, David Cameron went from an incumbent Prime Minister with a healthy parliamentary majority and an opposition under attack from all sides to a national punchline, branded with a slur so eye-catching and ear-pricking that it was never going to disappear overnight.

Which is Cameron’s biggest problem.

Whatever happens now, whatever is proven true or otherwise, barely matters a jolt because the question has been raised. In other words: the damage has been done.

There are numerous rumours about notable people and brands (I won’t be getting into those either), which have never truly been substantiated, yet are often the third or fourth thing the average person will ‘know’ about the subject in question.

Planting the seed in the public consciousness is, fundamentally, one of the real, tangible signs of any successful publicity campaign, malicious or otherwise. If you can leave your audience with an impression, and idea or a suspicion about you or your competitors, then your agenda will follow them long after they have digested your content.

Whether the result of a petulant piece of tit-for-tat name-calling or a serious and scandalous accusation, it’s hard to shake a reputation once you have it. This is an undeniable truth which will doubtless be worrying more than a few bigwigs in Wolfsburg, as well as Downing Street.

Barring some mythical figure swooping into their next press conference on a white horse with a sword made of PR spin, Volkswagen will probably spend the next decade rebuilding their credibility and reputation in the public consciousness.

After admitting that they had purposely fitted millions of their cars with software which had the sole purpose of fooling emissions tests, VW have been on the receiving end of some understandable shots across their bows.

But if anything, the most striking element of the ongoing furore wasn’t the initial deception, nor the outcry, but VW’s reaction to them both.

The accusations levelled at them were incredibly serious and, by their own admission, irrefutable. As a result, basic crisis management dictates that a swift, definitive response was required to ensure at least some degree of damage limitation.

However, company CEO Martin Winterkorn (the man who had led the company for seven years and overseen the production of every VW model in question) ignored initial calls to step down. Instead, he and VW America CEO Michael Horn attempted to weather the media storm with grovelling public apologies.

It was almost as if, in VW’s minds, holding their hands up and going: “my bad” would be enough to diffuse the situation and move the story along with a tangible lack of head-rolling.

But needless to say, when you have spent years blaming ‘technical glitches’ for results which were actually purposeful deceptions on your part, then try to apologise your way out of the backlash unscathed, the knives will be out for you among press, environmentalists and general public alike.

The result has been that, despite his eventual capitulation and resignation last week, Winterkorn’s attempts to protect his position gave a public impression (rightly or wrongly) of a cocksure brand culture who not only felt like they could get away with murder, but genuinely tried to.

So while the scandals which have hit Downing Street and VW generated very different headlines, the binds they have put their leading characters in are almost identical.

Potentially, two of the most recognised names in the country now face having to build their shattered reputations from the ground up. For the PRs amongst us, watching how they do it will be even more interesting than the shockwaves which destroyed them.

Your move.


By Jamie Stanley


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