City & Corporate: Whitehead Mann shows PR talent

Headhunters do not agree on much - theirs is the bitchiest of professions - but they all share a common belief that image is everything. The firm that is fashionable gets the instructions, and success breeds success.

In a business where it matters who you know, it matters even more to be known.

But the firm that lives by the PR sword can also die by it. Whitehead Mann came badly unstuck earlier this year when it put forward Sir Ian Prosser as chairman designate of Sainsbury's, only to have him withdraw in the face of an unprecedented howl of shareholder rage.

The FSA's investigation into former comms head Peter Bracken's alleged insider dealing has further dented its reputation.

With regard to the Prosser appointment, it did not help the headhunter's image that the increasingly detached Anna Mann was said personally to have handled the job. Thus, if Prosser was personally humiliated, the effect on the firm that put him forward was worse. It became characterised as arrogant and much more besides, all on the basis of one blunder.

But the firm has responded smartly. In April, it paid a seven-figure sum for Leonard Hull and, when it announced its results this week, it disclosed that its principal, Carol Leonard, will take over as headhunter in chief - in effect becoming the new Mann. The suggestion is that the mantle has been passed on, so the firm remains at the top of the list.

Leonard has built up one of the best contacts books in the business with captains of industry. No one would therefore question Whitehead's decision to buy her firm, but it is also a lesson in how to turn round a potential crisis.

People will forgive a mistake if they think the problem has been recognised.

Buying the talents of Leonard does that. It was a good business decision, but it was a PR masterstroke.

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