Anthony Hilton: Speaking truth unto power

Writing in the Financial Times recently Lucy Kellaway said what made Roland Rudd, the founder of Finsbury, such a success in financial PR was that he - together with Alan Parker at Brunswick - had been early to spot how the business was changing.

Anthony Hilton: Speaking truth unto power
Anthony Hilton: Speaking truth unto power

Two decades ago they saw that, whereas success in the 1980s had been judged by the ability of PROs to get coverage and plant stories, success in the future would go to the consultants who could get close to, advise and indeed be personal friends with and confidantes of major business leaders.

That is certainly part of it, but not the whole story. John Addey in the 1970s built his business on high level contacts. The success of Angus Maitland over the years has also been much more about quiet advice to very senior business leaders than any press coverage he has generated. Also in the 1980s, Financial Public Relations under Tony Knox, Dewe Rogerson under Roddy Dewe and Broad Street Associates - where Parker started as Brian Basham's bag carrier - all operated at a pretty high level. But none of these achieved the lasting success of Rudd and Parker.

What Parker and Rudd did was crack the investment banks and establish PR as an integral part of merger and acquisitions activity. One of the unappreciated things about M&A is how few deals individual bankers bring to fruition, so the high-level PR consultant often has much more battle experience than any banker or businessman. Parker and Rudd learned to exploit the commercial value of this experience.

What has been lost in this is the speaking of truth unto power. The sophistication with which PR denies access to journalists whom it thinks will ask tough questions leads to much softer coverage and more feeble analysis - so the real issues are no longer properly argued and debated. This is cosy in the short term, but disastrous in the long term because you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. It is the paradox of our age that, although business coverage is more controlled and more favourable than ever, the reputation of business with the public has rarely been lower.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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