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Is it a bad thing that London has become the world capital for reputational management, including for leaders we would not want running our own country?
If all that PR companies do is advise undemocratic counties on how to stay undemocratic, it is right to look down on their work. If, on the other hand, the advice leads countries to move down the road to freer societies, we should not rush to judgment on London’s role and reputation.
There are a range of reasons why London is perhaps the pre-eminent centre of this industry, including language, the time zone, and the nature of the British media. I recall one of Rupert Murdoch’s Australian executives once saying to me Britain has “the best media in the world and the worst media in the world – often in the same edition”. London is the toughest training ground for governments used only to state-controlled media, where there is little need for the skills of media engagement. But when you lose the power to dictate the news – as, thanks in large part to social media, even some of the more autocratic nations are doing – you need to learn how to convince people of your case through argument, not control.
We should bear in mind that while in Britain any strengthening of government communications is usually denounced as spin, in many developing nations moving from autocracy, journalists are usually first to welcome it. If a regime is tilting towards greater freedom it needs to learn basic communications skills and values.
In the west, not only government departments but every significant company and charity has a communications unit. In north Africa and elsewhere this is not the case. Governments and state companies lack the skills or the mindset to adapt to their new world.
If the PR companies concerned are doing it for the right reasons and in the right way, why should that help not come from London?
The writer is Tony Blair’s former director of communications