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PR gets in a spin

“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&#39s 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&#39 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&#39s 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&#39s 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

Peter Mandelson.

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&#39t love them, there is a nice fat expense account to keep

them warm.


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