Comms chiefs slam FSA proposals to regulate conversations with media

Leading corporate PROs have hit out at the FSA's threats to regulate conversations with journalists, as the media and PR industries round on the recommendations.

The Financial Services Authority released a Market Watch newsletter on 24 September, threatening to crack down on media leaks around price-sensitive information and implement formal changes.

On 11 October, four editors released a letter outlining 'profound concerns' and criticising the FSA's 'misguided response to the perceived problem'.

The FSA pointed out its suggestions - that all contact with media should be via dedicated comms resources and that phone conversations should be recorded - were best practice suggestions and not rules or formal guidelines.

But the suggestions are unpopular with the majority of PR professionals. Chris McLaughlin, vice-president, external affairs, at FTSE 100 firm Inmarsat, said: 'The FSA is going too far. It goes against the basic concept of the free passage of information and journalists getting on with their job.'

Keith Brookbank, director at Linstock Communications, said: 'In this day and age, communications cannot simply be limited to a PR function or a press office.'

Stefan Stern, director of strategy at Edelman, criticised the FSA for implying that it was considering heavy-handed regulation and noted: 'You cannot have a situation in which journalists are being told who they can and can't ring.'

But one senior in-house source at an investment bank was relatively relaxed about the FSA's anti-leaking drive.

'I don't think senior comms people in banks or lawyers would have any particular issue with there being fewer people with a licence to talk to the media,' he said. 'It might be a pain for journalists, but we're not in the business of making their lives easier.'

He did say documenting and recording conversations with journalists would be onerous and time-consuming for large institutions, but would be a 'nightmare' if eventually applied to City PR firms.

City PR bosses said they were acutely aware of issues around disclosure, but none thought regulating the PR industry was a realistic course of action for the FSA.

One agency head said: 'It's ridiculous to think the FSA can stop a senior investment banker picking up a non-company phone to a City editor. Its guidance is misjudged and I expect this furore will fade away.'

FSA RECOMMENDATIONS

- All initial media enquiries received by a regulated firm's staff to be immediately directed to the firm's media relations team

- All non-media relations personnel at regulated firms should be prohibited from directly responding to any initial enquiry from the media, regardless of seniority

- A contemporaneous record of conversations between employees and journalists should be noted by media relations personnel or recorded if held on a telephone line

- Media relations personnel should be copied into all written correspondence between the other staff member and the journalist

12 - Months the FSA will review leaks before considering formal rules

20 - Minutes it found calls between insiders and journalists could last

30% - Proportion of takeover announcements FSA had concerns about in 2009

£84m - Fines imposed by the FSA so far this year.

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