Reports that Oscar Pistorius has hired PR support, in the shape of UK veteran Stuart Higgins, have been met with plenty of criticism.
It is not difficult to see why. Pistorius has been charged with murder. So far, he is the only suspect. The idea that someone, faced with this situation, would opt for some sort of “spin doctor”, as Higgins is routinely described in the media, appears remarkably distasteful.
If we assume, however, that Higgins is not around to simply deceive and obfuscate, then it becomes rather more difficult to challenge his hire.
Companies and indeed people are often in court, facing criminal charges, regulatory action or civil lawsuits. Many pay for public relations counsel, to help make their case in the court of public opinion and manage a voracious media. Particularly where corporations are concerned, these moves attract precious little attention. Neither should they, not if the PR person is behaving honesty and ethically, putting forward the client’s best case without resorting to any of the machinations that the fit the definition of ‘spin.’
The same goes for Pistorius. (Although, whether Higgins’ arrival will actually help the paralympian’s defence is debatable. One view, for example, is that, by appearing selfish and self-indulgent, the hire actually hurts Pistorius more than it helps him.)
I asked Richard Levick, a litigation PR expert who has previously worked for Guantanomo Bay detainees for his views on the quandary. Unsurprisingly, his first point was to reiterate the presumption of innocence. He also noted that many of the current determinations being made are based on hearsay.
Levick did point out, however, that it is for every comms professional to determine whether they could take on such a client, in keeping with other ethical grey areas, such as arms, tobacco and foreign government. Many PR people choose not to work for such clients. Yet Higgins should not be castigated for working for Pistorius. Not until we see exactly how he intends to represent his high-profile client.
Or should he be? Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.