There’s a story about Coca Cola that’s often used to illustrate the power of a PR stunt. It’s well known that the recipe for Coke is so secret that it’s held in a carefully protected vault. However, when this recipe was moved from one building to another, instead of alerting no-one, slipping it inside a file and asking a minion to carry it discreetly from one location to the next, Coca Cola decided to hammer the point home.
It was moved with great ceremony, an armed guard and a cavalcade fit for a president. The message? That the formula is as important as a state secret – and that Coca Cola was serious about keeping it special.
I’m still not sure whether this really happened or whether it’s an apocryphal tale — and googling hasn’t thrown any more light on its authenticity. However, if it’s the latter, it’s akin to what today we’d call ‘fake news’. It’s also a reminder how fine a line there is between a good gimmick or stunt – and an unacceptable attempt to bend the truth.
If it really did happen, the Coca Cola recipe convoy was slightly tongue in cheek — an over the top gesture about a frothy drink. Nobody died, no reputations were shattered. But you could argue that the future of the world has been diverted by the fake news stories allegedly emanating from the Trump camp.
I’m not suggesting that we have that kind of influence. Yet today, it’s more important than ever that PR campaigns don’t pull the wool over the eyes of the public — or of the businesses they are serving. In this age of transparency, we can tell the best truth we can, we can emphasis the benefits, the positive implications and we can help build brands with all the feel-good information that we can muster. But we can’t cover up or mislead. Clients and consumers alike respect honesty.
These days you never know when something you’ve said or written will come back to bite. Do you think that the BBC HR department ever thought they would be justifying a £2.2 million salary offer when they took Chris Evans out to lunch to seal the deal? Or that Jeremy Vine would be debating the rights and wrongs of his own pay cheque on his radio show?
I’m not suggesting that any reputable PR firm outside of politics has dabbled with fake news. Nor am I trying to be holier than thou about spin. We all have to put a shine on an otherwise dull story at times. However, times are changing and it’s all food for thought for the PR world. Just saying.