Anthony Hilton: 3 brings City fight to the masses

People in PR often ask financial hacks why one City story gets chosen over another.

The answer plays to the fact that unless they are directly involved, most people find business boring. Unless it is a giant in retail or tech, relatively few readers of any newspaper or blog will have a direct relationship with a company.

The trick is to look for angles that widen the story's appeal, to bring more readers into the net. The aim is to publish items that will be seen to be interesting and important to the greatest number of people.

It is pretty obvious when put in such terms, but it is surprising how many people don't get it. Hats off therefore to 3, the mobile phone operator. It is the minnow in the UK market. Yet in the past few weeks 3 has used skilled, targeted PR to pull off a hugely significant strategic coup.

The firm's problem is that it is clinging on in the market, but there is another auction of spectrum coming up next year in which it could easily be wiped out. To survive it needs the auction to be tilted in its favour. However, if it defined the problem in those terms, it might generate sympathy but no reason for preferential treatment. So it had to widen the debate.

It did this in three ways. First it made it a matter of fairness. The Government has recently changed the rules to allow old spectrum to be used for new services. In doing so it broke the implicit promise of the 3G auction of ten years ago, when operators including 3 paid £22bn between them to secure their place as the only providers of mobile broadband.

The second strand was to emphasise the Government's professed commitment to competition - something in which the entire business community has an interest.

The third was to make it a test of the Government's sincerity. Its earlier action in moving the goalposts threatened to stifle competition. Did it have the courage to tilt the auction to address the problem?

So did it work? Well it has so far - the first draft of the auction rules issued for consultation last month proposes just the kind of tilt that 3 needs.

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