It's the public relations story of the past week, the rather sinister power of PR to damage and undermine through the process known as briefing. Even experienced hands are surprised by the viciousness as we saw from an interview with the Chancellor Alistair Darling and from the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley. As for less experienced people, Christine Pratt of the National Bullying Helpline must be regretting her tangle with the 'forces of hell'. She's enlisted the help of Max Clifford so she knows she's in a fight.
In an ideal world of transparency, there would be no unattributable briefings – and no 'off the record' comments. But we don't live in that perfect world. Briefings – often resulting in coy comments such as 'sources close to the Prime Minister confirmed' – are a form of institutionalised insider gossip that suits the media and PR people close to power.
In a world where everything is on the record, attributable and recorded, people would speak much less freely. The media would lose its privileged access to insight and information. PR people would become pointless intermediaries and the public would be less well informed. Is a lack of truth-telling preferable to truthfulness constrained by, say, anonymity? Few would argue that it is.
What principles can we apply to guide us through these murky waters? Remember that one guiding principle – to tell the truth – often conflicts with another principle – to respect client confidentiality.
- Assume that everything can be made public. In a world of small, ubiquitous cameras and recording devices, we shouldn't assume that our comments will stay private. A private email can easily become very public.
- Do you have good grounds for keeping something private? The most obvious example is national security (the 'lives are at risk' argument). But there are others: commercial negotiations could be scuppered if made public, so jobs could be at risk. There are also competitive reasons not to disclose future product developments. It may even be illegal to use privileged information as you could be convicted of insider dealing.
- Non-attributable: do you have a good reason for keeping your name out of the story beyond saving your job and reputation? The answer is when you believe it's in the public interest for information to be made known, but the information would be compromised if its source were made public.
- What is 'off-the-record'? The simple answer is that nothing is off the record, so don't use it. But there are occasions when there are conflicting principles. We saw this with the MMR vaccine when former Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to say whether his youngest child had received the vaccine so as not to breach the child's right to privacy. Yet this risked undermining the government's case that the vaccine was safe, so the decision was taken to brief senior journalists on an 'off the record' basis. A much better phrase is 'background briefing': is it important to explain the wider context that requires potential breaches of confidentiality or national security? Is the briefing the lesser of two evils?