Clifford Chance report has comms chiefs thinking: "There but for the grace of God..."

The bungled media briefing that wiped billions of pounds off the share prices of leading insurance companies has lifted the lid on the murky world of media relations.

Communications heads can now expect to face more rigorous internal risk controls, argues Gavin Houlgate
Communications heads can now expect to face more rigorous internal risk controls, argues Gavin Houlgate
An independent report says the Financial Conduct Authority’s comms team pre-briefed highly sensitive information to The Daily Telegraph in a way that was "high-risk, poorly supervised and inadequately controlled".

However, many directors of communication or media heads will read the Clifford Chance report – and contrast how many times they too have sailed close to the wind in an effort to win media favour.

Many large business organisations expect their in-house or agency comms teams to get involved in daily horse-trading with Her Majesty’s press to manage or boost corporate reputations.

As the FCA boss Martin Wheatley told the inquiry, "media is a necessary tool of regulation".

Pre-briefings are an establishment norm, with the findings from many significant reports or studies being trailed in advance – this year’s Chancellor’s Autumn Statement being a case in point.

Often, it’s a fine line between ensuring adequate controls around a briefing, while at the same time providing the journalist with enough to create a story and headline.  

Indeed, as the inquiry found, the FCA briefing was "well intended to avoid misunderstandings to the detriment of the life insurance industry".

But the report also outlined some serious disconnects in internal FCA comms, stating "it should not have been possible" for a detailed strategy of exclusive media pre-briefings to have been developed without any involvement of, and possibly the knowledge and approval of, the director of comms.

So what are the lessons that can be learned – and how far can communicators now go in trying to manage the corporate message?

In the regulated world at least, comms heads can now expect to face more rigorous internal risk controls. 

Some will be expected to obtain legal approval for statements and quotes – and even demands for sign-off on media articles, something that nearly all editors will reject outright. 

Some boards and executives may now demand more control over media processes and reporting – perhaps limiting the discretion and freedoms of their communication heads. 

But it would be difficult and perhaps unwise to legislate on the critical relationship between communication directors and journalists/editors – which I believe can be a positive force for truth and transparency.

It’s rare to hear about the many times that wrong or misleading stories are kept out of the media because of timely briefings based on great media relationships. 

At a time when old-fashioned PR and spin has all but died a death, the role of the communication director would seem more critical than ever. 

Gavin Houlgate was director of comms at KPMG and is a former business editor at Sky News and Reuters

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