PR agencies have reputations too

It is commonplace for many professional consultancies to ‘vet clients before they agree to take them on.

The big auditing practices have done it for years – initially because they did not want a business to go bust shortly after they had given it a clean bill of health, and then have to jump through hoops to avoid being sued.

However, the practice then spread so the big law firms, chartered surveyors and management consultants all lined up with the accountants. The message was that simply being accepted as a client of one of these big houses implied the customer had passed a certain test of quality. The sub text was that the adviser was not prepared to risk damaging its reputation by being in bad company.

I am not sure PR firms apply quite the same duty of care, though they all say they do. Over the years there have been some appalling clients trying to spin disgraceful lies to the British public and they always seemed to find a PR adviser.

The advisers explain it by saying that just as someone on a murder charge should be given the benefit of the doubt and the best possible counsel, so should their clients be entitled to the best advice – at least until wrongdoing is proved. I suspect they are kidding themselves, though. The truth is that the advisers who specialise in these dubious clients don't have much of a reputation to lose.

A more interesting development in recent times has been criticism of the PR firm, not because the client is bad but because it is unpopular.

Before Christmas it was interesting to see how the Equitable Life Action Group targeted Finsbury for taking on Equitable as a client.

There is a slice of the client base which so dislikes the management that it turns its wrath on anyone who assists them.

Whoever gets the Standard Life account in its run up to flotation may catch similar flak. Four firms are in the running – Brunswick, Maitland, Tulchan and Citigate Dewe Rogerson. The winner will have to cope with the resentment of policy holders who trusted management in its advice to oppose de-mutualisation, saw the value of the business destroyed and are now expected to applaud from the sidelines as essentially the same management rewards itself richly for taking the company public. The winner will earn its fees.

anthony.hilton@haynet.com

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