What a tangled PR web we weave

spider-web What do Charlie Sheen, John Galliano, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and Saif al-Islam Qaddafi have in common? This week, each is experiencing something of a reputational meltdown, which not only affects them personally, but presents a public relations tangle for organizations connected with them.

Charlie Sheen, not content with creating a tabloid media frenzy (and losing his publicist) has taken to Twitter and in just over a day gained 1.3 million followers – and apparently a potential new revenue stream should any sponsor wish to support his somewhat bizarre entry into Web2.0.

Twitter and ad.ly are criticised in the Telegraph for putting the opportunity for high profile publicity ahead of protecting Sheen from himself.   Meanwhile, the actor acknowledges he hasn’t much of a reputation to ruin – unlike the organizations he has tangled behind him, such as CBS and Warner Bros. 

Neither of these organizations comes out of the public mess very well – they can hardly claim they were unaware of Sheen’s self-destructive nature but were willing to use his notoriety for financial gain. 

A similar deliberate ignorance can surely be found at Dior and in the wider fashion world in respect of Galliano.  Lagerfeld is said to be furious at the damage done to fashion’s image and there have been many keen to distance themselves now.  However, this was not a one-off incident and again, Dior seems to have tolerated its star designer’s eccentricity – indeed, that was the reputation they employed.

As Schumpeter in the Economist notes creative industries have traditionally recognised the value of tying their reputation to the buzz created by outrageous celebrities.  The piece asserts that fear of the online collateral damage to corporate reputations will change this behaviour particularly as there’s always another edgy, yet less controversial  ‘brand association’ available.

The plagiarism allegations drawing Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and Saif al-Islam Qaddafi into the notoriety web this week are somewhat different.  The reputations affected by association are those of academic institutions and governments, hardly creative industries.  Baron Cut-and-Paste (as the cheating minister has been named by the German media) has generated headlines for his alma mata, the University of Bayreuth for all the wrong reasons, including claims of corruption.

In the UK, similar allegations against Gaddafi’s son for having his PhD thesis ghost-written have impacted the reputation of the London School of Economics.  The institute accepted £1.5 million from the Qaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation – with the initial payment now donated to establish a scholarship fund; following public and student criticisms.

None of these high profile institutions are totally innocent in the reputational fallout as the early strands of the problems can be easily found – indeed often the web of controversy is caused by corporate compliance.

What each example does illustrate quite nicely, however, is the tangled web that binds reputations to those of stakeholders and publics.  It is interesting to link to the Walter Scott quote:

Oh, what a tangled web we weave

When first we practise to deceive!

as the poem in which these lines appear tells of the dishonourable behaviour of Lord Marmion and enhanced the reputation of the Battle of Flodden as a romantic Scottish disaster.

With PR practitioners caught in the middle of such webs of reputational damage, it is useful to ponder if we’re playing a role as the spider or the fly.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

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