City & Corporate: PR victory comes with a heavy price

When Stuart Rose was appointed chief executive of Marks & Spencer, his first act was to change the company's financial PR adviser. Out was Brunswick, and in came Tulchan Communications.

That much was no real surprise. Throughout its tenure, Brunswick had failed to get M&S to understand that effective PR requires a willingness to talk when journalists want to talk as well as when the company seeks free advertising. Tulchan and Rose, in contrast, have built a close relationship which has seen his reputation keep pace with his achievements.

The real surprise was that the Financial Times thought it important enough to make a major news feature. Not too long ago, neither the FT nor any other paper would have considered public relations appointments of any interest to readers. Until the 1990s the advisers that mattered were merchant bankers and corporate stockbrokers.

The Americanisation of the City and the growing power of the corporate lawyers has changed that. In US battles for corporate control, no one says anything interesting for fear of sparking a legal action. That is clearly also how the investment bankers would like to play it here, and what is depressing from the journalist's perspective is how successful they have been.

They have been helped by heavier regulation from the Financial Services Authority, which gives principal advisers an excuse to say nothing that has not been vetted by lawyers. Meanwhile, below the parapet, both sides feed out gossip calculated to wound or undermine the other.

It would be good fun were it not for the fact that the real issues - the attackers' and defenders' merits, the credibility of their strategies, and what is best for employees, customers and suppliers - are ignored.

This makes it a success for PR, but not one in which we can rejoice.

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