Anthony Hilton: Put comms first in pay negotiations

A friend in financial PR said last week that the 'shareholder spring' ought never to have happened.

Anthony Hilton: Put comms first in pay negotiations
Anthony Hilton: Put comms first in pay negotiations

Shareholders should never have got to the point where they would come out in open public rebellion against the performance and pay of four chief executives in two weeks.

The shareholder concerns should have been identified in advance, communication opened up, meetings organised and the issues resolved long before it got to a public showdown. The fact this had clearly not happened was a major failure of PR.

I don't think this is right for lots of reasons. Any discussion has to start with why the shareholder revolts happened in the first place. Directors have been overpaid and underperforming for years and almost none get their heads chopped off in public. It is unprecedented for four in a row to have such misfortune.

What is different this time is public fury that has turned into political pressure. When executives continued to award themselves big pay packages while the public at large got nothing, the whole issue became toxic. Shareholders had to be seen to be doing something, to head off the possibility of direct political intervention in the pay-setting process.

But while that is not something that could have been smoothed over in a frank exchange of views behind closed doors, that does not mean PR has no role in the process. The problem is that even now most boards fail to appreciate the public at large has no faith at all in the fairness of the remuneration, so they continue to carry on as before. In general they only engage PR once all the key decisions have been taken. The hapless flack is expected to put as good a gloss as possible on what is already set in stone. Many find it a difficult brief.

It's not going to change unless the need to communicate gets priority. This means that if part of a pay deal presents an impossible challenge, then that part of the deal gets removed. But the catch is that many of these pay awards cloak themselves in complexity as a way to avoid being challenged. The simpler and more understandable the pay deal becomes, the easier it will be for everyone to see how egregious it is.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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