Sunday, February 01, 2004


Public relations is not comfortable with history. We work in the present. We don't seek advantage for what has occurred but for what is to come. But, sometimes history is essential. We should know the background of a story to handle it correctly. We shouldn't rely on spin to make a story go away or to help people forget the truth.

These thoughts came to mind as I finished a disturbing history of the Russian prison system called Gulag by historian, Anne Applebaum. Applebaum notes at the end of this deeply researched record of evil that many Russians want to forget the past, even as the past continues to distort the country and its ability to make progress. It is as if millions of Russians have washed their memories to wipe out millions more who were unjustly accused, falsely imprisoned, worked as slaves in prison camps and starved to death. She says at the end of her book that this is unfortunate because mistreatment will happen again: It is only through remembering that we can stop dictators before they gain power.

Thinking about her plea, it was easy to transpose it to commerce. Enrons will happen again as will WorldComs and Parmalats and Tycos. The only way we can prevent unethical CEOs from gaining power is by educating everyone in the history of abusive capitalism. We must not forget, but, sadly, we do.

Public relations practitioners who wipe out the past help to repeat it. When we work without remembering the ills of the economic bubble and self-dealings of many, we help a new generation of unethical leaders get rich at the expense of investors.

We forget that capitalists are not that ethical anyway in pursuit of wealth. Business is amoral. That is why drug cartels continue to flourish, as well as slave trading and prostitution rings. The Gulag, Applebaum reminds us, was the reason we fought the Cold War. Forgetting Stalin's prisons means the Cold War was in vain. It wasn't, and neither should be imprisonment of corporate executives who abuse power.


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