What's in a good name?

Time was when PR was beyond the pale. It was the bastard child of propaganda and the poor cousin of the marketing clan: nowhere near as sexy as the mad men of advertising nor as powerful as the marketers themselves. Malcolm Muggeridge sneeringly referred to it as 'organised lying'.

by Matthew Gwyther, MT editor
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

How times have changed. Public relations is riding high at the moment. The largely invisible spinners have never wielded greater influence. They have the ears (and budgets) of the most powerful. Most bosses with any sense now realise that corporate reputation is a priceless thing. None more than Charlie Mayfield, the John Lewis chairman who I interviewed for our profile this month. The goodwill associated with the John Lewis and Waitrose names, if it could be valued, would run into billions and each one of their 76,500 'partners' is a PR person defending and enhancing that good name.

Warren Buffett - who has run into a few reputational difficulties recently - once said: 'If you lose money for the company, I will be understanding. If you lose one shred of the company's reputation, I will be ruthless.' Someone who knows this too well is Andrew Gowers, who takes part in our round table on the subject. He ran communications first for Lehman Brothers and was then with BP for a couple of years, including for Deepwater Horizon. What an enduring hell that must have proved.

When you have the fraud investigators in, it's a near certainty your reputation is on the way out. The UK's Serious Fraud Office has not enjoyed a good press and now appears to be fighting for its very life. One suggestion is that we should adopt a more aggressive, US-style approach to prosecuting white collar crime, which often entails grim plea-bargaining in the ruthless attempt to get highly complex charges to stick.

There are aspects of the US system that do worry me, though. In 1987, I met Rudolph Giuliani, then the deeply ambitious, show-boating district attorney for the Southern District of New York. It was the day he'd nailed the legendary Wall Street arbitrageur Ivan Boesky with a $100m fine and three and a half in the slammer. When I entered the room, Giuliani was smoking a large cigar with his feet up on the table, a latter-day Eliot Ness. Giuliani got Boesky, large numbers of the mafia and became mayor, but he also frog-marched crying stockbrokers in handcuffs across their trading floors, only to drop charges later. Their reputations were completely trashed as a result.

Finally, we never cease in the struggle to defend management's good name. See page 44 for the latest battle cry.

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