Inspired by a presentation on The Israeli Mossad and the Media at this month's International History of PR conference, I was speculating with friends about how you might go about researching MI5's use of PR. As any John le Carré fan knows, spies often pose as journalists and planted stories are part of the spook's stock in trade. We thought a bit of ethnographic research might be exciting but concluded we would never know whether what we were being told was true, or even guess at what we weren't being shown.
(So no change there, then...).
What I hadn't thought about until reading Tim Burt's new book, Dark Art, was an increasing overlap between reputation management as practiced by PR and a slightly different variety being developed by self-styled ‘intelligence agencies’.
Occupying a grey area between private detectives and forensic accountants, these secretive companies have won significant amounts of business from clients looking for market intelligence to help shape or protect their core strategies
Burt claims that "combination of boardroom anxiety over reputational damage and a rapid demarcation of advisory roles" has allowed new players to encroach on PR territory.
On one side ... PR firms offer proven media handling skills and the ability to shape coverage on behalf of their clients. On the other side, the intelligence agencies promise better strategic risk analysis and crisis avoidance capabilities. In theory, the two disciplines should co-exist happily. The firms at the security end of the spectrum – often staffed by former army officers, CIA and MI6 agents – tend to work below the radar. They do not engage with the media or proactively manage reputations with external audiences.
Similar pledges of ‘strategic advice in an increasingly complex and unpredictable world’ illustrate the common ground occupied by PR firms and intelligence agencies that include G3 Good Governance Group, Risk Advisory, Montrose, Guidepost Solutions and Stirling Assynt among others. Their service offerings – ranging from transactional support, dispute resolution and regulatory compliance to competitor analysis and advice on communication strategy – are causing some anxiety for PR firms which thought such skills were their core competence.
- Clila Magen The Israeli Mossad and the media: Historical and theoretical perspectives