Defending the indefensible

Chatting to a barrister about the moral dilemma of defending a paedophile in court set me wondering how a PR advisor should react when asked to defend the indefensible.

For the barrister there is no dilemma about defending someone accused of even the most heinous crimes. Democracy and justice demand that no-one should lose their liberty without the prosecution being challenged to prove its case.

Does a similar ethic apply to the PR industry? Could we argue that no-one should lose his reputation without having the right to challenge the truth of the story?

If Captain Schettino, currently the world’s most reviled individual, asked for advice on defending or explaining his actions to the media should we help him?

We are told he drank wine with a beautiful blond woman then recklessly steered the Costa Concordia onto rocks and abandoned his passengers to their fate. Each day we learn something worse about him.

But can all these stories be true? On the basis of previous media lynchings we can assume that however badly he may have behaved at least some of what the papers are telling us is false. Perhaps there is nothing to be said in his defence, but perhaps there is, and if there is people should be told.

Occasionally people hunted down by the media turn out to be entirely innocent. Christopher Jefferies, landlord of poor Jo Yeates, was destroyed by the tabloids because they got it into their silly, vindictive little heads that he looked guilty of her murder.

The parents of Madeleine McCann were cruelly abused until Clarence Mitchell, a former BBC News reporter, started acting as their spokesman and talked or threatened their media persecutors into treating them fairly. Coincidentally, he is now working for the PR firm Burson-Martseller, representing the owners of the Costa Concordia. The chap deserves a medal.

No medal though for the international PR firms who acted for the Gadaffi regime in Libya and trousered vast sums, putting a gloss on the reputation of a mass murderer. Were they naïve, greedy or simply amoral? Could these people look the families of his victims in the eye and defend their actions? I doubt it.

But like the barrister defending a guilty man, there is an ethical way of defending a client’s reputation and explaining his actions, and it starts and ends with telling the truth.


-GARETH WEEKES, Deep South Media Ltd.