James Barbour
James Barbour

In the PR profession we wear multiple hats. In any one day I'm an analyst, opinion-writer or commentator, a crisis manager, spokesperson, strategist, trusted advisor … call it what you will, the communications professional is a jack of many trades.

And whichever hat we're wearing right now, the leak of diplomatic material produced by the UK embassy in Washington, in which British ambassador to the US Kim Darroch wrote to officials in in London that president Donald Trump is viewed as “insecure” and “incompetent,” should strike a chord.

Trump responded via Twitter on July 8: “I do not know the Ambassador, but he is not liked or well thought of within the U.S. We will no longer deal with him.”

The episode illustrates perfectly why trust and confidentiality are central to our ability to provide honest and valuable counsel. 

What else does it tell us? 

Speak the truth to power.

If you're hired to give your frank, unvarnished opinion, that's what you have to give. Whatever the context, there will be enough sycophants merrily telling the Emperor how beautiful his new clothes look. It's our role as advisors to tell the truth, however uncomfortable, however stark. We're here to provide rational advice, cogently argued and well researched. This is a crucial part of the "Fifth Seat" concept we put into practice at H+K – and once you give us the seat, we will speak from it with honesty and reason. 

The quid pro quo is that, if you ask for advice and opinion, you can't hang your advisor out to dry when you get it. And thankfully the British government appears – at least for now – to be playing by this unwritten rule. Prime Minister Theresa May has "full faith" in Darroch, per the BBC, the UK's apology and criticism being reserved for the principle of leaking confidential material, not for the content of the material itself. 

Keep it confidential.

In my first week with the British Foreign Office, our cohort of new recruits was led down into the basement of King Charles Street to visit what was then the "News Department". There, the then Head of News imparted various pieces of advice and tradecraft, one of them being "remember the Daily Mail Test." That is to say, before committing to paper (or screen), ask yourself: how would the tabloid press would react, should your opinions and analysis wind up in their hands? And what would the fallout be? 

The need for confidentiality between professional and client has always been paramount. When engaged as advisors to provide sensitive analysis and sometimes controversial recommendations, we must have a reasonable expectation that all involved in originating and receiving this sensitive material will respect its confidentiality. But the truth is that, for as long as there has been confidential information, there have been leaks. I've written previously about the disruptive and enabling effect of technology, and this applies in spades to the leaking of confidential information; such subterfuge used to involve plain manila envelopes and clandestine meetings, now the requisite tools are a smartphone camera, a VPN and a social media account. 

A side note on whistleblowing: Ensuring adequate protection for those who disclose illegal and unethical practices is a crucial part of modern corporate culture and accountability. And the same tools and tech can and do play a key role in exposing questionable behavior. I make a night-and-day distinction, though, between a well meaning act of whistleblowing and the cynical and targeted act of sabotage we're talking about here. 

If you play with fire … 

This part should be self evident. As of this morning the Metropolitan Police, the Cabinet Office and various other arms of the British Government have announced inquiries and investigations into the source of the leak. Depending on how well the leaker has covered their tracks, a criminal prosecution may yet result. Even if it doesn't, the short-term damage to relations between the May and Trump administrations will require considerable repair. 

The real ramifications, though, go far further. What happens the next time Downing Street, perhaps under a different Prime Minister, asks for an Ambassador's frank assessment of the politics of his or her host country? Will this week's leak give them pause, cause them to hold back in their assessment? Or will you, the next time a client says "and don't sugar-coat anything," sprinkle on just a little sweetness regardless? I hope not. Because episodes which threaten to erode trust and confidentiality between our profession and those we advise, serve equally to underline just how important that relationship of trust really is. 

***

James Barbour is a Director at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. From 2011-2014 he was Press Secretary at the British Embassy in Washington DC.