Private advisers a valuable sideshow

Conrad Black was recently asked how he could continue the promotional tour of his book on Roosevelt when his business empire appeared to be nearing collapse. He said: “I do not allow that to get in the way of my normal activities.”

Had Black been more open to advice, the disaster that has now overtaken his business and career might have been avoided. But had he been sufficiently less arrogant to take such advice, he might never have got into the mess at all. It is hard to escape the conclusion that it is flaws in character that bring great men down.

Not all of them, though. An interesting side business in PR involves consultants acting as sounding boards for senior executives, a role that could be compared to that of the court jester: they have a unique position in which they can tell the great man or woman the truth about themselves . Others might fawn and dissemble; the personal adviser tells it like it is.

Most PR firms might be reluctant to accept that to “fawn and dissemble” is what they do best, but they do tread an uneasy line with clients between telling them the truth and what they want to hear.

This is doubly the case in business PR, where the consultant has to deal with the snakepit of a public company boardroom. What the finance director wants to hear might be a million miles from the truth as the chief executive sees it.

Interestingly, it suits everyone to keep these personal adviser affairs quiet. Seriously arrogant chief executives like to conceal the fact that they need advice from anyone. The gurus often work for rival PR firms and do not want to provoke confrontation. And it only works if both sides trust each other – which confidentiality helps to achieve. But being a good private adviser is one of the most valuable bits of the whole PR business.

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