“I do take the view that the job of press secretary becomes extremely
difficult if the press secretary, and not the department he serves,
becomes the story and the subject of excessive attention.” So said Charlie
Whelan, back in 1999 when he stepped down from his role as head of spin for
Chancellor Gordon Brown.
Now the spotlight is on financial spin doctors, traditionally seen as
representing the more highbrow end of the profession. No Ab Fab fluff here.
But City PR giant Brunswick Group is embroiled in an MI5-style “briefcase
on a train” fiasco. Details of seven Brunswick projects, gleaned from part
of a dossier apparently left in a Covent Garden restaurant, which have been
circulating in the City were published in The Guardian newspaper.
Brunswick launched an urgent inquiry into a security breach which put
information about the corporate trans-actions of its clients into the
grubby mitts of City traders and journalists.
A Brunswick spokesman said: “We take any breach of our security very
seriously,” but he added: “From the information published…it is clear to
us that no price-sensitive information could have possibly been leaked
ahead of an announcement.”
Although the episode will be seen as a major embarrassment for Brunswick,
the firm is unlikely to face any formal reprimand from City regulators.
Despite several reports to the contrary, the FSA has no formal jurisdiction
over PR firms. But it is understood that it made discreet inquiries and has
satisfied itself that no shareholders have been disadvantaged by the leak.
Under the stockmarket listing rules, the FSA could force any company
mentioned to make a formal announcement to the Stock Exchange if it
believed that information about a deal had leaked.
The FSA's Andy Newton – a model of financial PR respectability and a
markets and exchanges expert – explained: “In the autumn, when we get our
full set of powers, we will acquire new powers to take action against
anyone who falls foul of our new market-abuse regime – that is, those who
are dealing on inside information or putting out false statements to affect
a share price or trying to squeeze a market.
“This regime will not just apply to regulated firms and individuals but
also to everyone, including you and me. And so, in this respect, PR
companies will be subject to the same standards of conduct as everyone
else. But we will still not be directly regulating PR companies.”
This may come as a disappointment to some. The recent Sophie Wessex-gate
episode attracted unwanted attention to the PR industry , already seen by
many as a poor relation to the worlds of advertising and journalism.
A survey by the PR Consultants' Association in 1999 found nearly 40 per
cent of articles reported the industry in a negative light. It found a
range of perceptions in the public mind, including “manipulative”
“concealing/hiding truths” “black art/mysterious” and “fluffy”.
The Institute of Public Relations defines the industry's role as
establishing and maintaining “mutual understanding and goodwill between an
organisation and its publics”.
The PR industry tries to maintain a strict professional code, which
includes an emphasis on telling the truth at all times and having honest
regard for the public interest.
But these principles go hand in hand with common sense, according to one
lecturer in PR: “I always tell my students not to argue with – let alone
lie to – people who buy ink in barrels.”
So is financial PR more trouble than it is worth?
For a major corporation, the importance of a PR firm or in-house team to
control its image equates to that of the banker and accountant. Very few
firms have the time or the expertise it takes to control and shape external
messages, influence journalists and develop the trust and credibility
they crave as a company.
That is why it should be left to the experts. Many bosses cannot resist
the temptation to ride the media tiger and make the mistake of thinking PR
is a glorified admin function.
The job covers a wide array of tasks, including answering press queries
and writing releases. Smart companies insist that their PRs are involved
in developing the firm's overarching strategy. But less is known about the
fact that true financial PR is not just a job – it is a lifestyle.
The wonders of technology mean the most junior press officer can have more
gadgets about their person than a secret service agent. Pagers and mobile
phones bleep early in the morning, long into the evening and often over
weekends. The media never sleeps and neither can PRs.
Seven mornings a week, there are miles of newsprint to be read and
analysed. For a top City PR, there is no such thing as “off duty” unless
you are on holiday, sick or incredibly drunk – all events which must be
pre-arranged as far in advance as possible.
Add price-sensitive information into the equation and you create a heady
power base – to wit Mr Whelan and his compatriots, Alastair Campbell and
Thousands of graduates try to break into PR each year. They should aim to
think like journalists, not like press officers. And even if the
journalists don't love them, there is a nice fat expense account to keep