News analysis: Parmalat calls in UK PR consultant

The administrator to the Italian dairy firm has called in a PR adviser to handle the media interest, but both face an immense challenge, writes Tom Williams

When Fausto Tonna, Parmalat chief financial officer, wished the press pack outside the Parma prosecutor's headquarters 'a slow and painful death', the uninformed observer could have been forgiven for thinking that the scandal surrounding the Italian dairy company had reached its nadir.

But anyone who has had to handle the fallout from this kind of corporate meltdown will tell you that the full extent of the inevitable misery for Parmalat investors, employees, trading partners and customers will not be made known in such a short, easily digestible soundbite.

Indeed, the public comments of Parmalat executives, including chairman and founder Calisto Tanzi, have already become part of a grotesque sideshow to the Byzantine task entrusted to Enrico Bondi. Bondi, widely touted as a turnaround specialist, was appointed administrator to Parmalat after the Italian government issued an extraordinary Chapter 11-style decree, putting the company into administration and protecting it from creditors for up to four months.

Bondi and accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers are trawling through the company's accounts to trace the £7bn estimated to have disappeared from the group's accounts.

Handling intense media interest

Shortly after Bondi took up his position in mid-December, he brought in Richard Holloway of Richard Holloway & Associates to handle the intense media attention. Holloway is dividing his time between Italy and the UK and has worked for the Italian companies Generali, Montedison and Telecom Italia. He refuses to comment on his new role, but his firm now instructs Parmalat's retained PR adviser Bonaparte 48 and is the main agency through which Bondi communicates with the media.

What everyone, particularly Parmalat's stakeholders, want is the truth.

But as with Europe's other Enron, the Dutch supermarket Ahold, and the now notorious financial scandals at US companies Tyco, Worldcom and Enron, the truth behind Parmalat's missing money will not emerge painlessly.

Enron senior vice-president and managing director of corporate communications Mark Palmer recalls how his division was put in a similar position. 'It was impossible for us to know what to say to the thousands of calls we were taking because we didn't know what the truth was,' he says.

Richard Holloway's job is not made any easier by the sheer size of Parmalat's operations. The investigation takes in Parmalat's 136 companies, spread across 30 countries, where some local financial authorities are conducting their own investigations. And while the Parmalat investigation grinds on, titbits and rumours are already leaking to a market hungry for information from parallel interrogations of Parmalat executives by Parma magistrates.

No PR department in such circumstances could be totally in the know.

Moreover, the forensic nature of investigations into alleged fraud on such a large scale leads to a constant flow of statements and updates that the financial markets cannot act upon. In the case of Ahold, which last May said that profits at its subsidiary US Foodservice had been overstated by £480m, the company originally estimated the total amount of irregularities to be £272m.

One PR specialist with experience in these areas warns Parmalat to 'get everything out in one go because the market doesn't like being drip-fed information.' In reality, Parmalat cannot hope to achieve this. Few who have worked on such projects can recall a 'blockbuster scandal' for which they actually had all the information to publish in one package.

The Parmalat case began after Bank of America denied the authenticity of documents certifying the existence of £2.7bn. Last week Italian magistrates said that a total of £557m in cash was missing from Parmalat's accounts.

Each is just part of a final figure that will not be known until Bondi completes his investigation.

Another factor is the complexity of the transactions in which the Parmalat scandal has its root. About £634m of the money Parmalat failed to recover and needed to service its debt was held in its mutual fund subsidiary Epicurum, a Cayman Islands-registered company.

Administration unprecedented

Muddying the waters further is the decree issued by the Italian government to put Parmalat into a Chapter 11-style administration, unprecedented in the Italian market and a move that could contravene EU rules.

Holloway will have to walk a tightrope between the law and the burgeoning need of Parmalat's investors and employees to know everything.

'You have to be clear about the legal ramifications of what you say in public, but customers and employers need reassurance,' says another experienced market source.

Bondi and Holloway have at least one trump card to play: they have no history of working for Parmalat.

Palmer stresses the need to bring in someone from outside to 'set a strategy and put people in place to handle the inevitable onslaught'. Another experienced market source puts it more candidly: 'Why is anybody going to trust anyone from an organisation that has done something like this? The folks in the company's PR department have no power, precisely because they are in the company's PR department.'

But the power of even an independent firm to stem media speculation in such cases should not be exaggerated.

Market reaction to the Parmalat scandal has been uneasy, with shares in Italian banks thought to have exposure to the company estimated to have dropped by 5.2 per cent last week.

At an earlier stage of the investigations, the financial press speculated that the meltdown could even undermine the credit-worthiness of the Italian government on the international debt markets.

While Holloway waits for Bondi to sift through the paper trail, the Parmalat story is already taking on a life of its own.

PARMALAT: THE COMMUNICATIONS ISSUES

- Investors: Amount that has 'disappeared' from Parmalat accounts unknown. Unclear how much of the estimated £7bn actually existed.

- Internal Comms: Around 36,000 employees work for Parmalat's 136 companies in 30 countries. Future of companies and jobs uncertain. Last week Parmalat Finanziara and its subsidiary companies Eurolat and Lactis were declared insolvent. Future of Parma football team in doubt.

- Suppliers: Dairy farmers and trading partners set to lose out. Italian dairy farmers owed £83m of Parmalat's total shortfall of up to £8.3bn.

- Media: Newspapers have claimed the company bribed politicians. It is alleged the company inflated the price of Latin American acquisitions to pay for bribes.

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